Comics and the Multimodal World conference paper

Here’s the first complete draft of my paper for this week’s Comics and the Multimodal World conference at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC. This draft is subject to change and may not represent the paper actually given.


I am thrilled to be here because I feel that this conference represents a significant step forward for comics studies, and I hope it’s the first step in an ongoing conversation about the link between comics and topics such as multimodality and digital culture.

The motivation for this paper, and the book project which this paper is based on, is that I believe comics studies needs to be more attentive to questions of form, technology and mediacy as well as questions of content. This paper presents a reading of Chris Ware’s Building Stories which focuses on materiality, which Katherine Hayles defines as “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies”, and in presenting this reading I’m seeking to demonstrate an approach to comics that considers how meaning is created through the physical aspects of the comic and the physical interaction between the reader and the text. I want to argue, first, that we as comics readers, scholars and creators are unusually good at thinking about materiality, and second, that this is important because materiality is a topic of crucial importance in the current digital era

Now first, what do I mean when I say that we as comics scholars are uniquely qualified to comment on materiality? I would argue that comics emphasize the physical and sensuous nature of the reading experience to a far greater degree than printed books typically do. Printed text tends to generate a practice of transparent reading, where we pay attention only to what the text says and we ignore what the text looks like or how the book feels in our hands. In comics, obviously we are constantly aware to the visual experience of the text, and we’re also even aware of the physical and tactile experience of reading the text, even though we may not think about it in those terms. Just think about the experience of reading a series of comic books SLIDE versus reading a hardcover book that reprints the same comics SLIDE. When you read the original comics, you only get a small chunk of the story at a time, but in exchange you get the original ads, the original letter column, and even the smell of old paper. When you read the trade paperback, you get a continuous, uninterrupted reading experience, with greater durability, but in exchange you lose something of the unique feel of the original comics. But materiality is not just something that’s external to comics, it’s also something that comic book artists are very good at manipulating and using to create meaning. For a cartoonist like Seth or Chris Ware, the physical appearance of the comic, including things like publication design and lettering, is just as important as its actual visual or narrative content.

Now why is the topic of materiality so important right now? Because the arrival of e-reading devices like the Kindle and the iPad SLIDE has resulted in massive changes to the materiality of reading. E-reading devices obviously represent a significant improvement over the traditional printed book in many ways, including portability, storage capacity, and customizability. But readers are often scared by the prospect that e-readers will replace printed books, and this is largely because readers have a significant sentimental attachment to the materiality of the printed book. Books have attractive typography and publication design, and even a particular texture and smell. These are features that digital books cannot replicate. Such features are not part of the content of the book – they represent accidentals rather than substantives, in W.W. Greg’s famous distinction – but they determine our experience of the book and even the way we interpret it. Many contemporary authors of prose literature, like Mark Danielewski, SLIDE Anne Carson SLIDE and Jonathan Safran Foer SLIDE, have even put this theory into practice by producing books that emphasize their own materiality and that cannot be replicated on the Kindle. One author, Garth Risk Hallberg, has referred to this strategy as “Kindle-proofing.” SLIDE The goal of this strategy is to enhance the physical, sensuous experience of reading a book, because this is the one area in which printed books are able to outcompete digital books. I think, though, that this opposition between physical and digital books is misleading, and that instead of thinking about whether the digital book will destroy the printed book, we should be thinking about how print and digital materiality can be usefully combined, how we can, for example, combine the sensuous and tactile richness of the printed book with the interactivity of the digital book. And I want to argue that comics like Building Stories are already starting to do that. If we read Building Stories through the lens of materiality, we can understand it as a prototype of the book of the future.

Now to finally get to my reading of Building Stories, it seems counterintuitive to argue that Building Stories is a digital text, because it appears to be the ultimate Kindle-proof book; more than perhaps any other comic ever published commercially, Building Stories is heavily invested in making use of the unique properties of print and paper and is utterly impossible to replicate on a digital device. Building Stories consists of a box containing fourteen artifacts of different sizes, ranging from tiny pamphlets SLIDE to giant newspaper sections. Each of these artifacts tell a story which relates in some way to a group of characters living in an apartment building in Chicago, primarily, a one-legged woman whose name is never mentioned.  The first reason why Building Stories is Kindle-proof is because of the sheer size of the book; I actually decided not to teach Building Stories last semester because I didn’t want my students to have to lug this huge thing around (and also incidentally because it costs $50). Moreover, Building Stories is Kindle-proof because each of the fourteen separate artifacts of these artifacts offers a substantially different reading experience, both in narrative and material terms. Peter Sattler writes: “Ware’s multipage folio obscures your lap and flops around in an ungainly way, while his “Golden Book” chapter fits comfortably in your hands, but demands to be pulled close before it can be read.” Each of these artifacts is also reminiscent of a form in which comics have been disseminated in the past; for example, the little pamphlets look like Jack Chick tracts. SLIDE So reading Building Stories creates a nostalgic recollection of the experience of reading the various other kinds of comics that the individual artifacts are designed to resemble. And this is obviously something that would be entirely lost if you read the book on a Kindle, which you can’t, by the way, as it’s not available in that format.

Furthermore, reading Building Stories on a Kindle would be a strange experience because Building Stories is in many ways explicitly about the conflict between materiality and digital culture and it seems to explicitly suggest that digital culture is hostile to materiality. In particular, Building Stories represents mobile devices such as laptops and smartphones as unsatisfactory substitutes for face-to-face interaction; as Georgina Banta writes, “What will probably draw most attention in Building Stories is the alienating interaction of its protagonists with various kinds of electronic devices and gadgets.” For example, in one section which begins with the caption “Disconnect,” we see the protagonist and her husband, Phil, sitting across from each other in their living room, each working on a laptop; they’re physically present to each other but they’re less connected to each other than to whoever they might be talking to online. A few pages later, in a panel shaped like an iPhone, Phil text messages the protagonist to say that he can’t get home in time to take their daughter trick or treating. He uses the impersonal medium of text messaging to announce that he can’t be physically present. All of this is in line with a popular discourse that presents digital devices as hostile to personal contact and physical presence – as Sherry Turkle writes, “Digital connections … may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.” Building Stories seems to participate in a discourse that presents digital devices, including e-reading devices, as hostile to embodiment, presence and materiality

In contrast, Building Stories presents books as vehicles for genuine connection and as means of experiencing materiality. When bookstores appear in Building Stories, they function as spaces for connection; for example, the protagonist is browsing in a bookstore when she runs into her former babysitting charge Jeffrey. In another section, the protagonist has a dream in which she is browsing for books – notably, she specifies that she is “browsing … but not on the Internet, in one of those big chain bookstores that don’t exist anymore…” and she serendipitously discovers a book which turns out to be Building Stories itself. She observes that it “wasn’t really a book, either… it was in pieces, like, books falling apart out of a carton, maybe… but it was beautiful… it made sense…” This is also an important moment because it establishes Building Stories as what Katherine Hayles calls a “technotext”, meaning a text that self-consciously uses its own physical structure as a means of creating meaning, a text that establishes explicit connectons between its semiotic meaning and the physical substance of which it is composed. What Ware suggests here is that the physical experience of reading Building Stories is analogous to its narrative structure. Just as Building Stories itself is composed of multiple fragments that are bound together by the box, in reading Building Stories the reader has to take the individual stories and bind them together to create a coherent narrative. Building Stories is a collection of fragments in both a narrative and a literal sense. And again, this way of invoking technotextuality only works because Building Stories is a physical book and not an e-text.

So it would be easy to understand Building Stories as a work that celebrates, or less charitably fetishizes, the printed book, and that demonstrates the superior materiality of the printed book and the immateriality of digital reading devices. But I want to argue that this reading misses the ways in which Building Stories is truly productive for thinking the future of the book because it ignores how Building Stories is also a digital text, a text that partakes of the forms of materiality associated with digital culture as well as those associated with print. First, in an abstract sense, Building Stories employs a mode of organization which is more typical of hypertext than print literature. In that it consists of a collection of fragments which can be read in a variety of orders, it follows the logic of digital texts like Michael Joyce’s Afternoon or Twelve Blue, and this is ironic given that early hypertext critics like Joyce and George Landow often celebrated hypertext as a means of liberating literature from the material constraints of the printed book. Moreover, Building Stories itself could not have been produced without digital technology. In an interview, Ware commented: “I really wanted to learn how to get or at least simulate the beautiful colors of the early newsprint comics. Of course, back in the early 20th century, the separations were acid-etched by artisans … and I was of course completely unable to come even close to this sort of subtlety with dot screens … But with the advent of computers and digital file preparation, printing is now more than ever able to recreate that intense color.” So Chris Ware’s creative process depends crucially on digital methods of production. But the most important reason why Building Stories must be read as a digital text is because it contains one specific section that was originally produced for digital distribution and that explicitly asks the reader to think about the materiality of digital reading devices. Seven pages in Building Stories were initially published as “Touch Sensitive,” a digital comic for the McSweeney’s iPad app. I’m not going to discuss “Touch Sensitive” in great detail because my co-panelist Patrick Johnson will be speaking more about it, but briefly, “Touch Sensitive” involves a young wife whose husband is losing his desire for her, and who is herself becoming attracted to a coworker. “Touch Sensitive” is all about the theme of touch – it asks whether meaningful contact between two people is ever truly possible or whether it’s just an illusion. The wife asks “I mean, if all we are is bundles of energy… what is a ‘hug,’ anyway? And how can we ever really touch each other?” In the digital version of “Touch Sensitive”, the reader actually has to touch and swipe the screen in order to make the panels of the story appear, and so “Touch Sensitive” is a technotext in the sense in which I used this term earlier – it uses its own material features as a way of creating meaning. Specifically, “Touch Sensitive” asks us to think about the comparative status of touch in digital and print culture, and when we compare the digital version of this story to the print version which appears as part of Building Stories, we have to ask which of them offers a more genuine sense of touch. As I have already suggested, touch is an important and underrecognized component of the comics reading process. Reading comics is a haptic, tactile activity in which the reader’s hand makes frequent contact with the surface of the page. And that surface is a surface which bears the trace of the artist’s hand, in the form of drawings and handwritten words. So when I read Building Stories, there is a certain sense in which I am touching hands with Cris Ware, in that I’m making physical contact with words and pictures that originated in Chris Ware’s act of inscribing them on paper. But obviously, this sense of touch is largely a fantasy, because what I’m actually touching is a mass produced artifact that reproduces Chris Ware’s original drawings, not those drawings themselves. Moreover, with print comics, the act of touching is inert, it doesn’t produce any actual results, whereas with the digital version of “Touch Sensitive,” when you touch the screen, it causes stuff to happen; it produces acutal changes in the visual appearance of the comic. So the qyestion we have to ask when we compare the physical and digital versions of “Touch Sensitive” is which of these artifacts offers a more powerful and rich experience of tactility, and the answer is that these artifacts both take advantage of tactility, only in different ways which are specific to print and digital media respectively. And the larger point here is that “Touch Sensitive” and the corresponding section of Building Stories are the same artifact, in that they contain the same visual and textual contact, but they offer significantly different material experiences and they benefit from being read together.

I think we can conclude from this that Building Stories, despite appearances to the contrary, is a book that takes advantage of both print and digital forms of materiality; it exists interstitially between the print and digital formats. And I think that the book of the future is going to look like this, or like Brad Bouse and Amaranth Borsuk’s digital popup book Between Page and Screen. The book of the future will incorporate physical and digital media in order to achieve effects unavailable to either medium alone. Or to put it another way, if the printed book is going to survive, and I believe it will, it will have to take advantage of both print and digital technology. And I believe that comics like Building Stories offer the best prototype we currently have of what this book of the future will be like. I further suggest that we comics scholars, because of our intuitive awareness of materiality, are able to make unique contributions to understanding the book of the future and predicting the future of the book.