Can Comics Survive Changing Print and Digital Formats without Compromising Artistic Integrity?

Aaron Kashtan's Between Pen and Pixel is a deep exploration into your father's comics, your comics, and the future of comics.

Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future
Aaron Kashtan
Ohio State University Press
April 2018

Most of us who wander through our stacks of books understand the disconnection between acquisition and appreciation. We will read these books, annotate when inspired, and stuff the texts inside our reasonably arranged collection. The books pile up, Little Golden ones and big paperback compendiums containing the greatest work of all time. We covet what we have acquired while wandering through stages of our lives, books in milk crates, books in dusty attic spaces, wavy-paged books suddenly rescued from flooded basement exile, long ago given up to having been lost in the floods of time. We collect, arrange, display — but we don’t always know how to appreciate until it’s too late.

In Aaron Kashtan’s Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future, the subject is not directly about acquisition or appreciation. Rather, it’s about the survival of tangible print as a medium of expression. We have had to come to terms with the slow death of print probably since the dawn of the 21st century. Of course, this isn’t to say that the speed of our acceptance is not equivalent to our ability to adjust. Instead, the issue for Kashtan is about understanding how (or if) comics can survive in a modern medium. For Kashtan, “…comics offer a model of how the printed book can survive despite competition for digital technology.”

From the start, Kashtan provides the reader with a variety of concepts. He starts with the idea of “materiality”, which he describes “…as the way in which the physical, technological, and sensuous components of a media artifact help to shape the reader’s reception of that media artifact.” Kashtan explains that it’s not just about the way illustrations are absorbed when accessed electronically. It’s also about typography, font choice and size, and how those elements interact. Go back to William Blake’s illuminated texts in the 18th century and go through to the modern day. It’s a consistent through line. Kashtan explains:

The act of reading a book is never purely a cognitive experience but is always also a material, embodied process…

Kashtan’s point, which he carefully spells out through the remainder of the book, is that we usually don’t see the act as a combination of both. Time has shown us that no matter how much we acquire texts or appreciate them, we need to connect the acts. We have seen the need to connect cognitive and material experiences through such texts as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. The reader familiar with those texts might be frustrated that Kashtan only covers one of those books in detail, but the point is effectively made.

Here’s how the chapters present themselves: The first pays attention to the effects of mediacy and materiality in the reading experience. Chapter two examines how authors of comics best rendered through print have responded to digitization, and chapter three reverses the perspective by looking at the continued importance of print. Kashtan follows by looking at how some comics have effectively moved back and forth between the worlds of traditional print and electronic media. Finally, he looks at comics that exists not simply in both worlds but are best understood through both worlds. It’s a deep dive from beginning to end, but Kashtan understands his topic and respects the reader enough to assume we will go on the ride with him.

In Chapter One, “My Mother Was a Typewriter: Fun Home and the Relevance of Materiality”, Kashtan looks closely at how Alison Bechdel’s text “…presents a more nuanced view of materiality, indicating that typewriting, despite its lesser degree of embodiment, is a no less material process than handwriting. Is handwriting an indication of a privileged status? Is typed text feminine by nature? Kashtan notes that Bechdel’s very personal book, much of which dealt with her coming out to her parents, featured lettering that was “…a hybrid of handwriting and typography.” Kashtan continues by noting that paramount to the essence of comics “…is the appearance of handwritten-ness or hand-drawn-ness, not the reality.” It’s fascinating to follow Kashtan as he goes through the varied forms Fun Home has taken. It “…exists in multiple independent material instantiations.”

In Chapter Two, he examines Talisman, a text which “…emphasizes the affective experience of reading…” It’s a text that argues for the value of books in their physical form and exists as a tribute to biblionecrophilia. Kashtan takes that term from writer Ben Ehrenreich, who believed it was “‘the retreat of the print faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object.’ “In short, the biblionecrophiliac is willing to create an intimate relationship with a book in the face of logic indicating that, with the passing of time, we need to adapt, no matter how much we romanticize the past.

Kashtan draws from writer Scott McCloud’s 2000 book Reinventing Comics. In his book, the latter predicted the demise of print, which Kashtan reminds us has yet to happen. First of all, digital-native comics (which employ digital-specific features such as interactivity, synchronized sound, and moving images) could not have been easily predicted in 2000.”For McCloud, the physical form of the comic introduces arbitrary constraints on the reading experience…”

Kashtan goes on to note that McCloud dismisses the importance of the tactile experience. Kashtan seems more confident than he could or should be in other circumstances, but his proof is strong, especially with such webcomic examples as xkcd: Click and Drag. For Kashtan, “The power of this strip comes from the fact that it demands physical effort and tactile contact from the reader.” He continues by noting that webcomics are available online for free, but readers are still willing to pay for the privilege to own them in a physical form.

By Chapter 4, “Guided View: How Comics Move from Print to Digital and Back”, the reader gets deep into such outlets as ComiXology and the Guided View process of such releases as Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison, where some aspects of the text are only available on Kindle Fire. Kashtan notes that “…even comics developed for one medium… can be effectively remediated into the other…” The question remains as to whether or not a comic meant for both print and digital can survive equally in both formats without compromising artistic integrity.

In his examination of comics that exists simultaneously through print and digital forms, Kashtan could not have picked a better case study than Chris Ware’s epic beauty Building Stories, a boxed set of 14 comics of different shapes and sizes meant to be read in distinctly individual ways.

For Ware, the physical form of the book serves to concretize the abstract object that constitutes the literary text… Building Stories is the ultimate demonstration of this; through its inconvenience, it makes the reader aware that reading is a physical, embodied process.

The question remains for Kashtan, though, as to whether or not Building Stories is even a book. His students didn’t see it as a book, perhaps because it could be read in any order. That it “…employs hypertextual structures…” ensures that its ability to “…fragment[s] the linear reading experience…” can be a confusing experience for some, exhilarating for others. A text like Building Stories is less about appeasing the masses than it is about providing something different, something difficult, and something with an unpredictable outcome. Many of us had the CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure) stories as a child, through comics or even the Encyclopedia Brown series. Ware brought it to a new level, and readers are still trying to understand how he operates.

Between Pen and Pixel is a rich and rewarding reading experience that requires a great deal of concentration. Readers looking for a quick fix about the history of comics as they’ve straddled the journey from print to digital will need to be equipped with both an awareness of the art form’s history and an appreciation of the different quality texts. This is for serious students. Kashtan ends with a brief discussion of his time at Georgia Tech, where he taught ENGL 1101 and 1102 through four categories, WOVEN, (Written, Oral/Non-Verbal, Visual, and Electronic).

…I asked the students to format their essays as books… one student wrote a paper about The Hunger Games which was submitted as a foam quiver containing toy arrows, each of which had a page of the paper wrapped around it.

It would have been interesting to see how else Aaron Kashtan might have presented Between Pen and Pixel. This book can get a little thick and ponderous at points, but Kashtan understands his material and has a passion for it. His primary argument is strong and successfully played out by the end. Comics are alive and well in 2018, thriving in their traditional form and challenging in all manner of electronic transmission. We stuff them in our backpacks and place the over-sized books in a part of our shelves that can hold their weight. They might not translate that well on a pocket-sized phone, but Kashtan effectively convinces us that they will adapt wherever they can find a home.

RATING 8 / 10