Incommensurability, Print, Digitized, and Digital Comics, and the Future of the Medium(s)

The purposes of this essay are twofold: first, to indicate the need for a dedicated branch of comics studies devoted to adaptation, translation, and transformation which addresses the unique facets of digital comics and acknowledges the compromises made to bring print native content to digital reading environments; and, second, to survey a representative crop of current (non-Marvel-and-DC) editorial staffers to assess their intuitions and intentions as this new medium experiences its uneasy birth. I have, elsewhere, constructed an argument for the incommensurability of print and digital comics content, based principally on my acceptance of Charles Hatfield’s “Four Tensions” which distinguish comics as a medium. The print comic, from the single panel cartoon to the multi-panel strip, to the comic book, relies upon what Hatfield terms “codes of signification; between the single image and the image-in-series; between narrative sequence and page surface; and, more broadly, between reading-as-experience and the text as material object” (132).1 When presented in a digital environment where the unit of the page is reproduced smaller or parceled out panel by panel for ease of viewing on a phone or tablet screen, the gestalt effect of the reader comprehending the page

1 The single panel cartoon, I would argue, still fits these tensions because historically they are printed as a part of a broader page unit. An example would be a New Yorker cartoon set against an article which, though it may bear no relationship to the cartoon, is defined as an experience by the interruption which the image presents. The experience of reading a short story with such paragraph breaks is distinct from the experience of reading the same essay in a collection devoid of these interruptions. Even a cartoon like The Far Side, is most often presented on a newspaper page alongside other cartoons and strips. Their sizes relative to one another and arrangement impact when the reader will encounter them. In short, the page surface and the physical presentation remain key to their appreciation as a material experience despite the narrative sequence not necessarily being parceled out by panels. Single panel cartoons also benefit from the expectations of their multi-panel counterparts for much of their humorous punch. Punchlines are often implied to exist in a subsequent (though non-existent) panel. If Gary Larson shows us the pillow talk of a pair of praying mantises, the denouement, is forestalled, implied by the gestalt of the image-text as surely as it is in the incipient water-weapon showdown in the “Draw, you varmint!” Nancy strip which Newgarden and Karasik so lovingly dissect.

as a unit simultaneous with the panels as a narrative sequence is lost. Moreover, the text, presented in a digital environment, can never be a material object distinct unto itself because it is one of an almost infinite number of texts which can and will be presented in the same physical package. This is not to suggest that digital comics are in any way inferior, nor does it stand to reason that a translation to this environment from the physical page will render the product incomprehensible, merely different2. The purpose of this delineation, in this essay, is to draw attention to the importance of recognizing such translations as just that, translations. Publishers are already working to reproduce back-catalogues in cheap, readily available digital form and this massive recirculation of content which, until fairly recently was ephemeral and subject to disappear entirely except for the most diligent collectors when it went out of print has contributed to a democratization of “geek” culture, as the gatekeepers who rose in response to the shift to the direct market (which removed comics from spinner racks and relegated them to head shops where children and the cannabis-averse were less likely to encounter them, leading to the rise of “mature” comics as the industry driver (a

2 I hasten to add that I am not prescribing print or medium-specific fetishism, nor am I endorsing the lionization of the “original,” a tendency which many literary scholars exhibit. Originalism, as in law is limited in its utility, particularly because, like law, comics is a complex amalgamation of many different practices, traditions, norms, tropes, hierarchies, etc., and so pointing to an “original” intent, even when dealing with a cartoonist is a fool’s errand when one considers that, as in any creative medium, there are bound to be editors in play. No, comics are fundamentally collaborative, and so, in a manner of speaking, any given presentation of a comic is as legitimate as a production of a play. There is a case to be made for evaluating some presentations more highly than others and for critiquing them on the basis of their aspirations; no critic worth their salt would attend a traditional, bare stage Elizabethan production of Hamlet and dock it for a lack of pyrotechnics, but they would critique the polyester undergarments and period inappropriate accent work. The same is true in comics. It may be as legitimate to reproduce a Peanuts strip as a square of four panels as a sequence of four, given Schulz considered this expediency of publication design in his creation of the strip, though an argument could be made that the fact he drew the original strip on Bristol board in a four-panel horizontal sequence lends additional credence to the primacy of that presentation. Nonetheless, it’s up for debate and subject to its publishing context. Even an auteur in the true French sense like Hergé, the Belgian cartoonist behind the inimitable Tintin albums actually redrew entire stories and sections and authorized reflowing of panels for editions both at home and abroad, and most of the early stories were initially released in monochrome, though their contemporary preferred forms (evidenced by their continual reprinting) are the redrawn and coloured versions. Boutique editions of the “pure” original versions are available, too, as alternate, though not necessarily superior or truer, even in the estimation of the author who redrew and coloured them, editions. That’s not even mentioning the lettering which Hergé did himself for the original French language editions and which handwriting was recreated digitally for some foreign editions while, for others, typical computer fonts or native language hand letterers were employed. Each have their own inherent value and, as in Benjamin’s conception, asymptotically approach but never reach the purity of the original, albeit with the additional caveat that the “original” is a fallacy no more legitimate, in and of itself, than either conclusion in the interminable debate over whether George Lucas ruined or refined Star Wars to an original, but initially unreachable, vision with the special edition re-releases of the films.

trend we are only now seeing reversed as all-ages graphic novels resume their domination of the superhero market (evidenced by the ascendance of Michelle R. Wells to Co-Editor in Chief (though she subsequently returned to Executive editorship of DC’s Young Adult line after the departure of Bob Costas) (Johnston). The effect of scarcity led to the rise of aspects of fan culture which privileged long-time readers and made comics progressively antagonistic to new (young) readers, a trend the market has now seen for the folly it was. The rush to open these back-catalogues to the curious is profit motivated, as publishers, for the first time, have an extremely cost-effective means of distributing content which is unlikely to earn out a reprinting but which may have undergirded the story of the latest superhero blockbuster. But it also represents the advent of an era where the best and worst of the medium will be available to readers regardless of their ability to locate or afford a copy of Action Comics #1. It is important, however, for comics studies to develop as a discipline, that materiality be considered in literary analysis and such diligence requires that comics scholars and consumers demand that care be taken in re-presenting the original experience in a manner which is conducive to the digital environment, just as a translator of a text takes care to ensure that the spirit of the original is carried over into another language. I take this a step further, positing that the care required to re-present print-native content indicates that digital comics are, themselves, a unique medium and one which publishers ought to explore not merely as an expedient to monetize a back catalogue, but to develop the art-form and present creators with opportunities to exploit the capabilities of phones, tablets, and e-readers as material objects with which digital image-texts can collaborate to tell new types of stories and broaden the field of comics studies and the entertainment landscape as a whole.
I am indebted to comics scholarship, particularly that of Thierry Groensteen, whose work on delimiting the frontier of digital comics lends me the nomenclature for referring to native digital (as opposed to print native and adapted content). Groensteen developed the concept of adaptation from print to a digital medium in which the page unit is broken as a form of editing, analogous to film editing (Comics and Narration 64). Groensteen likens the process to observations on some of Enki Bilal’s work, in which the cartoonist created panels for a graphic novel as isolated units to be assembled into the final work (Comics and Narration 64). Naturally, the distinction must be made, that this was a practice devised and decided upon by the author, while the in-house or industry adaptation process of translation from book and page units to panel units is carried out by those whose investment in the work is non-authorial. Comics, in the U.S. especially, have long been an inherently collaborative medium, meaning that an additional cook in the kitchen requires only the additional credit and scholarly consideration. I hasten to add that, unlike Groensteen, I don’t worry for the loss of “the original” in the shift to digital art processes, such as practiced by Fiona Staples, wherein there is no “original” or “virgin” art to be displayed in galleries as an autonomous object. In fact, I would argue that this shift prioritizes the inherent sequentiality of comics art and helps to work through the ghettoization to which comics art has long been subjected. Comics as a collaborative medium can only benefit from the erosion of auteurist fetishism and the re-presentation of narrative art as fine art; I do not fret, as Groensteen does, that the loss of originals will prevent the formation of an archive or threaten the scholar’s ability to trace the material evolution of comics (Comics and Narration 65). If anything, the objectivity of computer files (pantone numbers in coloring, lack of handling deterioration, absolute pixel location values and scalability) and the longevity and reproducibility of digital files pose fewer threats of deterioration and concretize aspects of original presentational intent which obviate problematic aspects of materiality studies like fading, print error variations, etc. This all goes to say, I write from a perspective of fundamental optimism for the future of comics as what Groensteen terms a hypermedium, and digital comics in particular (Comics and narration 68). The possibilities afforded by digital comics and what Groensteen terms digitalized comics are exciting and the former, as this
essay will expound, may well hold the key to revitalizing an industry which has trended towards the moribund for the better part of the past several decades, in spite of the triumphal success of films derived therefrom. In Groensteen’s words, the frontier of digital comics redefines comics (as a whole) as “a hypermedium, orchestrating heterogeneous elements (text, still image, moving image, sound) and transforming the reader into an active user, a ‘readeragent’ according to the neologism coined by Anthony Rageul” (Comics and Narration 68). The hypermedium of comics, thus, embraces its inherent complexity as what many already view as a mongrel medium becomes all the more-so. Like any mutt, too, the medium is only strengthened by this inclusivity, but only when the scholar approaches the products thereof with appropriate care. How this care can best be taught and exercised by publishers in the facilitation of the creation of new works which embrace these diversities of form is a question addressed in the latter portion of this essay, in collaboration with those already engaged in the work of doing so.
My interest in defining this new medium has led me to ask the question of to what extent publishers and their editorial departments are already working to develop digital comics as a discrete medium and venue for the creation of entertainment product? Marvel has released several “motion comics,” generally as tie ins to their animated media: Ultimate Spider-Man, for instance. These utilize screenlike transitions such as the time on a digital clock shifting with a progression tap to signify the passage of time, instead of the comics native inter-panel transitions which reproduce a panel, like one showing a digital clock, with the latter panel showing the same time change. This digital only comics feature obviates the inter-panel closure which McCloud isolates as a unique feature of comics (though I, along with Dylan Horrocks, object to the role this plays in McCloud eliminating single panel cartoons from the realm of comics). If one wishes to be proscriptive of comics as a medium and NOT a hypermedium, such an element would disqualify the digital comic from consideration, but the analogous features of digital comics far outnumber their unique features and so considering them as a branch of a hypermedium seems more prudent.
Comixology’s proprietary “Guided View,” hereafter referred to as GV, has a similar effect on digitized comics as cinematic intra-panel transitions, substituting, in most cases, the movement of the eye from panel to panel, with a cross fade, reminiscent of a filmic or slide show transition. In more complex cases, where the print work is, in Kashtan’s terminology, “Kindle-proof,” more work may be required to approximate the experience of reading print in the digital environment. Kashtan, for instance, refers to Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, a choose-your-own-adventure comic which was illustrated as a single, large canvas and which, in its print form, uses tabs and arrows to signal the page flips as readers choose their direction in the text (167-82). The text also, as Kashtan points out, has sections which must be randomly accessed by simply flipping through the book, because they are not linked by any story path originating outside these islands of narrative. This random-access component makes it extremely difficult for that experience to be replicated in a digital environment like GV, where narrative progression is deterministic, albeit prompted by finger taps or swipes. In this sense, Shiga is engaging with Lev Manovich’s conception of the database as the enemy of narrative. Interconnectivity is the underpinning of a database’s functionality. You must have a click path by which to access the logical antecedent to the precedent text. By stranding tangential narratives in the wilds of his dense canvas of a comic, Shiga highlights the especial capacity of print media to make use of human sensory intake and overload, a capacity which computers and their logic based language cannot encompass. In translating Meanwhile to the digital interface, the publisher created a version which is, essentially, scans of each page with minimal coding work to ease the process of accessing pages which are linked by tabs in the print text, forcing the reader to zoom in and out to appreciate content on the page when the screen is below a certain size, however, Shiga also worked with an independent developer to create a Meanwhile app which utilizes
highlighting functions (dimming the colors on unrelated narrative pathways while still allowing you to see them as adjacent storytelling units which might intrude on the chosen pathway) just as, in a choose-your-own-adventure novel where the reader can hold a finger in the previous page in anticipation of a gruesome demise). The app takes care to analyze the text and recreate as much of the experience (or as many of the experiences) as possible; however, such careful work is generally not undertaken for every print-native comic if for no other reason than that dedicated applications are too large and are inconducive to the centralized e-book/digital comic marketplace which is dominated by Amazon. Additionally, most comics are not as “kindle-proof” as Meanwhile. Yet, even a comic like Watchmen, built on a nine-panel grid that is, for the most part, unwavering throughout the 12 issue run and easily reproducible in a panel-by-panel slideshow format, makes use of the page as unit, most notably in the famous “Fearful Symmetry” issue, in which panel compositions mirror their corresponding panels at the other end of the book, converging at the exact center of the issue and underscoring the common themes of the narrative threads.
As I have established, the process of re-presenting the print experience digitally is fraught as a translation, and even the most comparatively simple task relies on thoughtful consideration which is antithetical to automation, the process which makes the production of e-books cost effective. As Kashtan notes, Comixology’s initial patent stipulated ownership of the process of converting to GV even via algorithmic isolation of panel borders (which would eliminate the need for human intercession, yet that technology has yet to roll out, even subsequent to Amazon’s acquisition of Comixology (116-17). They still tout their teams of dedicated professionals working to convert each issue and highlight that many of those whom they are employing to do the work are also comics creators. The degree of professionalism of these individual workers, however, is opaque, as is so much of Amazon’s business.
In the early days, before the almost total domination of the market by Comixology and Amazon, many companies, including Dark Horse, relied on editorial interns to do the digitization work. While most of these individuals, like Amazon’s faceless ideal worker, were and are passionate about comics, they were not employed as experts in the field and were not necessarily equipped to present the authorial intention of a narrative sequence. A comparison might be drawn to hiring someone to translate a novel using Google’s translation feature rather than hiring an individual who is fluent in both languages. The results might be comparable in many respects, but just because you have a human being intervening when obvious errors crop up does not obviate the problem of a lack of expertise (expertise being the ability to most closely approximate the intentions of the original creator(s), to paraphrase Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator.” In this paradigm, the humans are essentially content screeners, akin to Facebook’s hordes of content flaggers who tag content like graphic violence, fake news, and pornography.
It is unlikely, however, that it will become cost effective for companies to employ subject experts in each product they digitize to carry out that work, and so some degree of compromise is necessary. The opportunity presented, however, I believe will be remunerative and a way forward for comics publishers who are facing declining direct sales and an uncertain future in the bookstore market. That opportunity is to embrace the technologies being used to translate print content and consider those techniques as unique storytelling tools which might be the better applied in content created explicitly for digital presentation, whether it originates as hand-drawn art or not, as in the Enki Bilal example from earlier.
At the moment, the “big two,” DC especially, publish what they refer to as “Digital Firsts,” which are issues and series of comics which are distributed only digitally until they hit a sales threshold which justifies printing them either as single issues, or, more commonly, as trade paperback collections. To treat such projects as simply research and development or as a market test
for content, however, seems wasteful; just as the fact that Warner Brothers and Disney, who have acquired DC and Marvel respectively, treat their comics divisions primarily as intellectual property generators for their juggernaut film production departments seems a crass treatment of a medium. Put simply, just because one’s primary use for a shovel is as a bludgeon does not mean that the underlying value of a technology for piercing and moving ground powered only by human strength should be ignored. Publishers would be wise to seize the opportunity to diversify their comics offerings by embracing the unique features of the digital environment and using the advances in presentation and app development to attract new talent to comics as a hypermedium.
Digital interfaces offer untold opportunities to expand the possibilities of the medium of digital comics and even failed experiments like Marvel’s foray into augmented reality “AR” which involved scanning hidden codes on comics pages to reveal bonus content ranging from extra panels, to backup stories, to bonus material like creator interviews and sight gags or hidden advertisements have value as barometers for new types of content and the markets therefor. The problem with the aforementioned experiment was the interruption to the reading experience (forcing the reader to take out their phone and open a proprietary app while reading their physical issue), not to mention the shelf life of product support. Not all AR content was guaranteed to be hosted in perpetuity on Marvel’s servers and so creators were hardly likely to risk obsoleting their work by concealing meaningful story elements where readers might be disinclined to explore them or lose access to the ability to do so after a period as short as a few months. In a comics culture of so-called “trade waiting” where customers will frequently wait for larger collections of single issues to be published so that they can consume the story all at once, that obsolescence was all the more daunting. Such an experiment in what I would call “advent calendar storytelling” might find far greater success in digital comics where such a feature could be built into the reader application and thus obviate the interruption to the experience of the story presented by having to pull out a phone and open an app.
When you are already in the interface, the augmentations to reality become a part of the reality, rather than a gimmick, although Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse present a similar conceit, far more effectively done in their Between Page and Screen, precisely because the interaction between the print and the computer is a gestalt rather than the comparative compromise of Marvel’s AR, which simply added to an already complete story and failed to justify its existence as a result.
Some similar forays into digital-first publishing were successful, however, with the comic series tie-in to the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game becoming popular enough that DC has now printed the material in a number of formats including “premiere” hardcover collections. Among the early crop of digital firsts, Injustice was developed in half page units to make the page presentation landscape for e-readers and so that the eventual print version would array these half page units vertically as normal pages (albeit composed of two page units) but this, of course, made it all but impossible for the writer and artist to use features like the splash page or double page spread in presenting their material, much less something like a fold out spread of more pages. All these expansions of the canvas, had DC committed to the product as digital native would have been open to the creators, but the decision was made to ensure that the content could eventually be printed in traditional comic book format, a constraint of which the creators took full advantage but which could also have been an opportunity to seek out creators with ambitions to create comics that don’t fit or work as well (or at all) with print standards. As discussed in the latter portion of this essay, the success of the market in years to come will be predicated upon the diversity of content to match an expanding audience, so compromises will be as valid as radical departures from the norm and both should be undergone where the talent has a clear vision and editorial the capacity to help realize that vision. Kashtan notes that Kramers Ergot, an irregularly published independent anthology which has had a number of publishers over the years, not to mention sizes and formats, had an entire issue which was printed at too large a size for even the largest mechanized binder, necessitating that each finished hardcover be hand bound (43). Comics is rife with such medium expanding projects and visions and for publishers to remain relevant, it seems obvious that the opportunities afforded by the democratization of technologies and the rise of web-comics should, to some extent at least, push publishers to expand their range of digital products to correspond with their experiments in print and hybrid forms of the two.
To that end, the remainder of this essay is dedicated to a critical engagement with the results of a series of interviews with editorial staff at a number of publishers outside the “big two” who I have excluded on the basis that my interest lies primarily with evaluating the digitization and creation of content which is creator owned “meaning IP not owned by the publishers” although this is not necessarily true in the cases of Dynamite, IDW (which pursues licensing deals), or Dark Horse (which also licenses outside properties). The limitations of these viewpoints and my engagement with them, is straightforward, in that the sampling is non-representative and draws upon only one department in the creation and publication of comics, albeit the department which liaises with all others. The insights I derived from these interviews are not, by any stretch of the imagination, intended to present a holistic prognostication about the future of comics as a hypermedium. They are meant only to provide a snapshot (limited, definitionally, in scope) of the industry today and to the extent I draw conclusions and make recommendations about paths forward, they should be taken in the spirit of scholarly argument. It should also be noted that where information was privileged or possibly compromising to the individual interviewed, I may anonymize their response in accordance with journalistic ethics.

Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter, et al. Illuminations. 1st Schocken paperback ed., Schocken Books, 1969.
Borsuk, Amaranth, and Bouse, Brad. Between Page and Screen. 1st ed., Siglio ; Distributed to the Trade by Artbook/D.A.P., 2012.
Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. University Press of Mississippi, 2013
Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics An Emerging Literature. 1st ed., University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Horrocks, Dylan. “Inventing Comics.” Hicksville. June 2001. Accessed 9 December 2020.
Johnston, Rich. “Marie Javins and Michele Wells Are Editors-In-Chief Of DC Comics.” Bleeding Cool. 14 August 2020. to-hollywood-reporter/ Accessed 9 December 2020.
Karasik, Paul, Mark Newgarden, Jerry Lewis, and James Elkins. How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels. 2017.
Kashtan, Aaron. Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future. The Ohio State University Press, 2018.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.