A Life Lived in Comics Day 13: Digital Native

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I’m about as young as you can be and still remember before the Internet was a part of daily life. I remember looking up things in encyclopedias for school papers. Which isn’t particularly remarkable, but I am pretty amazed when I realize how few years separate me from people who don’t have those memories. It’s almost like I was born into the digital world, but not quite, like I immigrated from another country at a young enough age that I speak English fluently and have lost much of my proficiency with my first language, but I still remember the old country.

As I’ve mentioned, I started reading comics when I was 11, and it was only about a year later that my family got our first CD-ROM-enabled computer. (My parents were early adopters of computers going back many years, so this wasn’t our first–most recently we’d had a Windows 3.1 machine that ran WordPerfect and Oregon Trail, and I was pretty comfortable with a DOS command line.) We marveled at the in retrospect useless Encarta, made it about halfway through The Seventh Guest, and I became familiar with the DC Comics hub on AOL and web 1.0 usenet forums (Internet forums have been a recurring but far from constant presence in my comics fandom, thanks to the periods when no one I knew read comics, but it’s been a few years since I’ve looked at any regularly).

I bring this up to make the point that, while I have technically read comics longer than I have been on the Internet, the margin is pretty thin. So I retain a fondness for print, but the period in which I’ve been excited about the possibilities of digital comics is nonetheless longer than the period in which comics existed for me as an exclusively print phenomenon.

When Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics came out in 2000, I was ready for it. A devotee of Understanding Comics (like many people, my relationship with McCloud’s first book about comics has gotten more complicated over the years, but I still admire much of its thinking, and used it when I taught a high-school comics class for a year), I had been anticipating its release and grabbed a copy the instant it was available. I’m far from alone in having found it very different from what I expected, but I do recall that the second half, dealing with digital comics, had me pretty excited for the future of the medium.

At the time I’d have been reading comics about five years, and I’d already discovered a few webcomics. In fact, I had already been posting my own comics to the web as early as middle school. Unlike earlier entries where I’ve alluded to my old comics, these would require some real digging on my part to turn up, so today my laziness saves my dignity. These were straight comic strips, utilizing the computer as distribution tool but not getting into any bells and whistles, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the concepts McCloud put forth about the possibilities of limited motion, branching stories, panels embedded in panels, and what he referred to as “the infinite canvas,” the notion that comics on the web needn’t be restrained by an arbitrary page shape.

McCloud’s discussion of comics’ digital future came in three parts: the digital creation of comics, the digital distribution/economy of comics, and the possibilities of comics freed from pages. At the time, comics’ transition to a digital workflow was still happening (I believe Dark Horse was fully digital by then), and today we’re at the point where nearly the entire process is digital, from artists who scan pages themselves and send them in digitally (very few artists I’m working with send in physical art) to those who actually draw or finish their pages on a computer.

The digital economy chapter is a lot closer to reality now than it was for several years after Reinventing Comics, when the Internet seemed to be becoming a more efficient model for selling physical goods, but digital sales weren’t really taking off. More recently, Apple, Amazon, Google and others have finally made paying for digital products a seamless experience, while technology like the screen on the iPad 3 now render comics so sharply as to nearly rival print quality. However, despite the Internet’s early promise to shake up traditional ways of doing business, the micropayment economy McCloud wrote about has failed to a materialize. While McCloud himself experimented with the kind of direct micropayments he discusses in the book (and I tried them out too, paying 25¢ for some of his digital offerings and a few other things), the current digital comics economy is dominated by gatekeepers, notably Apple, whose app store and in-app purchasing software only allow prices ending in .99, meaning the lowest possible price is 99¢, not terrible, but not the same kind of pricing as the pennies at a time principle behind turn of the century micropayment theories. It’s still possible to go it alone and charge whatever you want, and some do, but the Apple model seems the standard for now.

Finally, and most excitingly, we seem finally at the beginning of more widespread experimentation with the ways that digital comics can differ from print comics. Most webcomics are based on the comic strip model, and most digital comics are either repurposed print comics or comics that will eventually be printed, but as more readers get tablets and become less attached to print, this is already changing. Some of McCloud’s efforts from years ago included comics in which all the panels existed on a single page, connected by threadlike connectors he called “trails,” a story in which each panel zoomed into the next, and experiments with stories that expanded in different directions based on reader choices. I recall my astonishment at a six-foot-tall panel in a new tale of his Zot character, which depicted his cast falling from the sky as the reader scrolled down (these comics all still exist on McCloud’s website). Others played with these possibilities as well, and McCloud kept track of them on his website, but more traditional comics remained the rule until the release of the iPad.

Today at work I looked at Marvel’s Avengers vs. X-Men: Nova on an iPad borrowed from the marketing department. I’m not in a position to really know or say what if anything DH is doing along similar lines, but there is definitely interest everywhere in this kind of thing, and I’m not giving anything away to purely speculate that most publishers will be trying out digital native comics soon. Nova wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, achieving all of its effects though fades and parceled out panel reveals. There was no motion or panels and captions sliding into place, which is fine of course, and Waid and Immonen did a fine job of pacing everything, even if the story itself was pretty dull and inconsequential feeling.

Before I started writing, I took a look at another digital native comic, Chris Ware’s Tough Sensitive, available through the McSweeney’s app for 99¢. For the most part it uses similar techniques to Marvel’s effort, partial pages revealed over time through a series of finger swipes, but it creates a more interactive experience, while still unspooling under Ware’s control. A few panels have the subtlest animation, while others react to a finger swipe and can be switched between different states. The comic opens with an overview of the first several pages, before the hands in the center expand to fill the screen and create the title page. After that, panels spread out across the screen, but there is still often a lot of negative space, the distance between panels and emptiness around them used for effect, as opposed to the pages of the Marvel comic, which always resolve into fullscreen compositions before moving onto the next page. Some panels are bigger than the screen and lengthen a moment by scrolling over for a while before moving on the next page.

Ultimately, “Touch Sensitive” scrolls as far to the right as it’s going to, and the reader is invited to touch an image that represents a screen a character within the story is looking at, opening a new, final page that adds a new dimension to what has come before. The story is concerned with the physical distance that has developed between a married couple as they’ve aged and their bodies have changed, and with the distance created between people in a future of full-body spacesuits and ever-present screens. Readers are invited to interact with the touch-sensitive panels of the comic, aware on the one hand that we are touching the story’s narrator, something her husband no longer does, and on the other that we are touching nothing at all.

It’s unfailingly clever, as Ware always is, though it doesn’t achieve the resonance of his best work, and the final pages seem to be making more of a thematic point than an emotional one, making it ultimately a proof of concept similar to the Marvel one, albeit more sophisticated in its storytelling and more daring in its execution.

Still, along with several other digital comics I’ve tried out, as well as Waid’s upcoming creator-owned digital initiative, I’m taken back to how I felt in 2000, when it looked like comics were ready to undergo a radical transformation and become a more purely conceptual medium not tied to a physical format created to meet the economic needs of the 1930s. The iPad and its competitors very much resemble the window-style viewer McCloud envisions in the final chapter of Reinventing Comics, and these devices seem to be what many cartoonists were waiting for to jump into making the kind of comics that can’t be replicated on the page. I’m ready to touch my comics and see them unfold in ways they couldn’t have when I first began reading. Because of when I started, I’ll likely always be fond of reading print comics, but I also came in just in time to be primed for what comes next.

PS: As always, I’m trying to live in the future, and the majority of this entry was written on the WordPress app for iPad, though I finished it up on a laptop.

Tomorrow: Maybe balloon placements? Pre-Stumptown drink and draw? We’ll see.

Why’m I doing this, again?

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