Killing the Page: Comics’ Digital Conundrum

[11 January 2012]

By Shaun Huston

I was an early, but not enthusiastic, adopter of digital comics. The few issues I downloaded to my home computer have gone largely unread, even though I still have them tucked away in a “Comics” folder. I have a number of comics apps on my iPhone, but not that many comics.

For the past nine years I lived in a town where the nearest comics shops were at least 25 miles away, making me, in that regard at least, an ideal target for digital comics. However, I chose mail order and the occasional trip to a shop in a nearby city or town over electronic books. Partly this was due to the availability of titles I wanted, but more than that was the reading experiences offered by the platforms I had available to me. This past year both of these factors shifted significantly.

By the end of 2011, virtually every major publisher of monthly comics in the US had either started or announced plans to have same day as print digital releases. Back catalogs had been steadily increasing as well, particularly following the introduction of the iPad and the development of dedicated applications for buying and reading comics, notably, by comiXology. Last year also saw the first serious alternative to the iPad as an e-reader for comics with the introduction of the Kindle Fire.

Any kind of extended or focused reading, as opposed to skimming, or a task like editing that requires reading but is active in other ways, too, has always been unattractive or challenging for me. I’m sure that there are a number of reasons for this, but one major barrier to reading on a computer is that it offers none of the tactile qualities of reading in print, from holding the book to flipping the pages.

Given enough time and motivation, I’m sure I could adapt, but there’s also the alienation and distraction of all the other things I do with the computer, from writing columns like this to grading assignments or managing the household finances. I read a lot professionally, so when I read for pleasure, I want to detach from work or other external responsibilities (I should note that as a social scientist and a critic I’m never fully detached from what I do for work or professionally, but there’s still a difference in intent that is important when it comes to reading).

Touch devices like the iPhone, iPad and now the Kindle Fire (and Nook Color and Nook Tablet) are designed to address the problem of tactility and immediacy, but not without requiring adaptations of their own. The iPad at 7.47” x 9.56” (first gen)/7.31” x 9.5” (second gen) comes closest in size and dimension to the typical monthly comic, which is, essentially, 7” x 11”, but none of the available devices allow for full, or regularly, sized pages.

To address this problem, the comiXology reading app provides a choice between full page views and “Guided View”. In Guided View, pages are deconstructed into panels, and larger panels and splash pages are broken into more readable elements. In this mode, readers move from panel-to-panel by swiping the screen with their fingers instead of turning or moving page-to-page.

While there’s some latitude to read full pages on the iPad, and the Fire at 4.7” x 7.5” (or the Nooks) affords that option more realistically than the iPhone or similarly-sized devices, in all of these cases there will be situations where most readers will shift to Guided View in order to effectively see some particular detail on a page. For many, Guided View will be the primary choice, which is a qualitatively different experience than reading page-by-page. In fact, while in that mode, “the page” arguably becomes irrelevant as panels are strung together into one linear sequence, rather than into a series of page-specific sequences.

In some sense, every comic is already a single series of panels, but traditionally, page layouts are an important part of how stories are told with comics and those layouts are shaped in part by what an artist knows, or has decided will be, the dimensions of the page. The comiXology reading app allows readers to see a book in an approximation of the original form, but actually reading a comic that way is likely not practical for most comics on most devices.

One reason why I only casually use the comics-reading capabilities of my iPhone is that on a device of that size, it’s difficult to read most comics in the way that they are meant to be read. This isn’t simply a matter of principle or some atavistic analog impulse, but stems from the fact that panels are given a particular context by the page. Sometimes I feel lost when looking at individual panels, or smaller elements of a larger panel, and need to step back and see the full page to understand the narrative.

On the iPhone, I rarely do this, choosing to stumble through with Guided View for the better resolution, but on the Kindle Fire I do it frequently and can even read page-by-page for short periods on many comics. However, reading on the Fire has so far been an experience of moving between modes trying to bridge the difference between traditional page views and digitally adapted ones.

The specificity of many comics to the medium of the printed book, and to particular dimensions, is one angle of critique of digital comics from creators such as Art Spiegelman (see, Brian Heater, “Art Spiegelman and the Future of the Book”, Publisher’s Weekly, 11 October 2011). He cites the early 20th century comic, Little Nemo as a case point, but it’s not difficult to find examples of, particularly, independent and creator-owned works that have unique and particular dimensions. Mini-comics, for example, typically sold directly by authors at conventions and via the web, come in an endless variety of shapes and sizes.

Picking up on Spiegelman’s larger point, I find it difficult to imagine reading a book like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2003) on a digital device: page layouts often direct the reader in particular ways, or require some study to follow, panel sizes vary and establish a certain spatial and temporal rhythm to their reading, and at 8” x 6.5”, the book itself has idiosyncratic dimensions. A technology like Guided View would take much of the special challenge and experience of reading this book away, while, paradoxically, being absolutely necessary on most devices to make the text effectively readable in the first place (to view pages from Jimmy Corrigan, visit the publisher’s website).

While the variety of digital comics is expanding and becoming more variable, most titles available for download are “mainstream” in the sense of being works of genre fiction originally published as or made for serialization as periodical pamphlets. Comics such as these are not only standardized by format, but were often subject to repackaging and repurposing even before the popularization of digital media. A reader may encounter titles like Marvel’s Runaways and New X-Men by Grant Morrision in pamphlet form, as trade paperback or hardcover collections, or in digest (smaller sized paperbacks, typically 5.5” x 8.5”). Publishers in these cases already have multiple formats in mind; digital, arguably, merely adds one more option or variable to consider rather than representing a fundamental shift in how comics are meant to be read.

Clearly, though, the current period is one of transition and of publishers and creators figuring out how best to adapt comics to digital. When Amazon announced the Kindle Fire, not only was comiXology and comics-related media, such as the recent X-Men: First Class and Green Latern movies featured in the marketing, the company also released news of a deal to exclusively sell e-books of collected editions of notable DC Comics series, including Watchmen, Y: The Last Man and Fables.

These “trades” can be read in full page mode or in a “guided” mode wherein the full page is dimmed and individual panels or sections of panels are highlighted and made to pop out of the page. This mode is programmed to follow text. One result of this choice is that parts of some panels are never highlighted or “popped out” by swiping. Images are treated as background and are, literally, subordinated to words in this mode. Like Guided View’s focus on the panel over the page, this re-orients the reading experience and involves front-end judgments about what matters when reading a comic.

One reason for these kinds of problematic judgments by software and device makers is that digital comics are almost entirely being made from print comics or comics that are made with print as the primary format and digital as a secondary or adjunct release. Alex de Campi’s and Chrtistine Larsen’s Valentine is a series conceived for digital reading. In comiXology, issues are already arranged as a continuos series of panels, as opposed to pages of panels, and a reader swipes not only from panel-to-panel but from images to words, that is, where a panel includes narration or dialogue one swipe renders the drawings while a second materializes the words.

What de Campi’s and Larsen’s experiment highlights is that digital is a fundamentally different medium from print, both in what makes for optimum reading and in its creative capabilities. When it comes to comics, “the page”, is arguably an analog convention, one that has little meaning or use for most digital interfaces or reading. This has long been evident in prose where pieces written and published to the web are typically oriented vertically rather than horizontally and reading predominantly entails scrolling through text instead of flipping through pages.

Much of the debate and discussion of digital comics has, understandably, focused on the economics of digital. Should digital comics be cheaper to buy? What does digital pricing mean for compensation to creators?  What do digital storefronts mean for local comics shops? The treatment of digital as a secondary market by major publishers also suggests an economistic view of what the new medium means for the industry.

The experience of reading digital comics and the challenges inherent in making comics as we know them work on digital devices suggests that there are also thorny creative and artistic questions to be addressed in the development of comics for e-reading. In the long run, the economics of the digital market may depend on these questions being worked out in ways that make sense for readers, publishers, and creators alike. It seems doubtful that any significant growth of digital comics can continue without moving beyond models that see the digital as little more than an adaptation of the analog.

Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/152454-killing-the-page-the-digital-conundrum-for-comics/