Materiality, “Digital-Comics,” ComiXology’s Guided View, and the Incommensurability of Print and Digital Media Where Comics are Concerned

This essay is dedicated to ComiXology’s Guided View and related technologies for reading comic book pages on a computer, tablet, or smart-phone which isolate panels or otherwise frame sections of a page and animate transitions between them in an attempt to mimic the movement of the reader’s eye across the comics page. The central thesis will be that such technologies, while they deftly adapt the content to the spatial constraints of the smart-phone, tablet, or computer, fundamentally alter the medium of comics and bastardize its unique storytelling possibilities in the process. Such technologies replace the native capabilities of comics as a storytelling medium with others native to the digital mode and, as such, constitute the makings of a new medium, rather than a translation of the old. It is a subjective enterprise to determine where such boundaries lie and the threshold for defining a medium versus an edition of a work, versus a Benjaminian “aura” (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).  A translation is a new text, as, again, Benjamin, would argue (The Task of the Translator). It is only by accepting the degree of incommensurability of one language and another that we make the vital distinction between translation, with its utopian pretensions to fidelity, and adaptation, with its freedoms and its inability to “harm” the original by playing the changeling and attempting to replace it without notice.

            Mediums are, by definition, incommensurable. A film cannot also be a comic book. A novel cannot also be a television show, nor a painting, etc. Within this, there are, of course, degrees of dissimilarity and incommensurability. It would be foolish to argue, however, that even such superficially similar media as film and television are commensurable. As will be discussed later on, not only are the presentation sizes distinct even leaving aside television’s pixel renderings relative to projection, they are also distinct in that the former is a fundamentally public experience, while the latter is designed to be private or familial. Naturally, this is not an absolute division, and as will be discussed later, there will always be areas of bleeding between media even without the consideration of offset printing. That said, if the goal of Guided View is to render as closely as possible the experience of reading a comic book, it fails in all key ways even as it succeeds in establishing itself as a medium unto itself, a reflection on which will conclude this essay. Guided View is less an act of translation than of adaptation because it is attempting the conversion to this new medium and, as such, fails the litmus test of translation which is its constant and impossible pursuit of what Robert Stam called the “chimera of fidelity.” (Stam, Beyond Fidelity 54)

On a related tangent, when is a book not a book? As Amaranth Borsuk’s trenchant monograph on the codex book suggests, it is when the book is anything but itself. One reason I would posit e-readers (not e-books) have failed to, as yet, fulfill the prophesied slaying of print media, is that there is such a porous membrane between so-called e-readers and tablet computers. The latter category offers not only the screen reading experience, but the whole of the internet, dedicated game apps, television streaming, and a host else besides. Perhaps the codex book’s greatest success lies in its unity of purpose. It is only itself. Unlike text, however, comics are not so easily transmutable. A written text, words and glyphs, can be translated with varying degrees of preservation of meaning into any language, moreover, they can be rearranged on the page, made to wrap around images, to form shapes themselves, to break and hyphenate without a fundamental loss of the reader’s understanding, at least to a point. The first comics, however, were essentially staple bound newsprint quartos in quantities to match the desired content and they reprinted newspaper strips which, because of the new dimensions, necessitated that panels which may have been in parallel, be tiered. As we shall discuss, the increments of comics storytelling are more fragile than those of text, whose increments are lain out in punctuation as well as space. The easy rightward parsing of tne gutter separating panels in parallel, when substituted for the carriage return eye movement required of the tier, in many cases, changes the timing of a scene or gag in fundamental ways. But more on this later.

            I am not alone in suggesting that comics are a uniquely utile medium for examining this digital/print divide. Aaron Kashtan likewise dedicates an entire book to the premise, segments of which this essay will consider. He quotes Jeff Webber, Vice President of Digital Publishing at IDW Publishing “that comics are the only sector of the publishing industry that has not been significantly hurt by the trend toward digitization” (Parkin, n.p) (4).The degree to which print publication has been harmed by the advent of e-texts is debatable, except in sectors that were already considered ephemeral (cheap paperbacks such as the mass market paperback, for example, easily giving way to the ease of e-reading precisely because they were never designed to endure frequent reading). Comics, on the other hand, have moved beyond ephemerality, at least in America, with remarkable speed. The revelation of the value of so-called Golden Age comics (a result of mothers tossing children’s Action Comics #1s while they were off at college) led to the rise of collector culture which has since dominated the mainstream comics industry and spun off into going toy concerns, with many decrying the tendency for, especially the “Big 2”: Marvel and DC, to regard their publishing IP and output as merely R&D for the toy division (an allegation now levied at films, not least because Disney and Warner Brothers respectively own both major publishing houses and even Image Comics, founded by emigres from the “Big 2” in pursuit of rights retention and artistic freedom, has only recently turned to actively promoting new talent rather than serving as a holding company for the founders, at least one of whom, Todd McFarlane, is primarily a purveyor of toys licensed from his character roster).

            Nevertheless, print comics remain a going concern, evidenced by the profusion of multiple editions of works which sell well and editions in prestige (larger) formats, the better to take in the art, not to mention alternate editions featuring uncolored art, un-inked or “raw pencil” art, and even large boutique editions of classic and popular stories reproduced from high quality scans of original artwork, the better to show the smudges, flaws, and brilliance of the individual artists. This is, of course, coupled with the simultaneous mass digitization of back-catalogues of titles for digital purchase, many of which would otherwise never have seen print again. Old publications have been resurrected, or perhaps exhumed for digital distribution just as huge collections of samey films were sold off for syndication in the early days of film on television (Kael). These developments are understandable and concomitant, however this desire to make money off of a back-catalogue that, by and large, as with most mediums, deserves to remain buried, has coincided with a broad brush applying the same presentation techniques to works which genuinely do need to be seen in their intended form to be properly appreciated. That said, I would argue even the lowliest example of a medium ought to be examined in its intended form as well, as I will elaborate below.

            Kashtan writes, to this end, that “[w]hile comics don’t always exploit the capabilities of digital platforms either, they do suggest ways in which electronic texts can mobilize their own material properties as signifying resources. They also offer a prototype of how existing experimental print texts can be adapted into digital form without sacrificing their experimental nature” (5-6). I vociferously contest the idea that a text can remain experimental if the variables are changed by adaptation to another medium, but accept the premise that some comics are better suited to panel by panel guided reading than others. Again, per Kashtan “[b]ecause comics take advantage of their own materiality as a signifying resource and because they deliberately cultivate awareness of materiality, they are useful for understanding the current debate between print and digital literature” (16). To provide just one example, take the image below [Fig. 1] of a Little Nemo Sunday page by the great Winsor McCay. In the early days of newspapers, comics were not relegated to a paltry few panels for the sake of ensuring at least one strip for everyone in the family, McCay and others like him were frequently afforded entire folios in newspapers, a canvas which, in McCay’s case, became the substrate for some of the defining work of comics as a medium long before a hero ever donned a strong-man’s tights.

Here, McCay pioneers the comics polyptych, the panel delineations which iterate characters but preserve a background to create the illusion of progression in time against a static environment. One could, perhaps, look at the image as a whole then take in the individual panels, then the image as a whole again. ComiXology does allow you to shift in and out of its Guided View, but to argue that the experience is homologous rather than merely analogous to the movement of the eye over the page, perceiving what McCloud calls the “gestalt” meaning both panel and page simultaneously, is ludicrous.

            I take this truism to its logical extension, which is that Guided View constitutes a new medium which I will expound upon a bit below, but which is no more identical to the comic being “converted” than it is to the comic adaptation is to David Lynch’s film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, or the novel itself. Robert Stam says:

Adaptation is of course a paradigmatic form of transtextuality, defined broadly by Genette in Palimpsests as “relations between texts,” and more specifically in an instance of Genette’s ‘hyper-textuality’ as a case of transtextual variations on pre-existing texts (hypotexts). A single hypotext, for example, The Odyssey, can be seen as spawning a series of hypertextual spin-offs ranging from Virgil’s Aeneid and James Joyce’s Ulysses to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) to Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990, on to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Guy Madden’s Keyhole (2011), which comprises Odysseus’s journeys across the wine-red seas into the narrow confines of a single domicile. Filmic adaptations of novels inherit and reconfigure a double constellation of transtexts, first the literary legacies that inform the source novel and second the cinematic and artistic legacies embedded in or mobilized by the filmic adaptation.” (“Changing Pedagogies”)

Of course, no two texts, whether inspired by one another or not, are the same. That said, Omeros and The Odyssey are both poems. Their conventions fit a medium just as their presentation in codex books distinguishes them as texts. But if poetry and prose constitute media rather than genres and film and television do the same because of quirks of form, why then should it be taken at face value that a digitized comic remains a comic? Even further, there is no promise in the free inspiration or adaptation of an original work to that chimera of fidelity. In theory, at least as the publishers present their digital product, however, and ComiXology has a virtual monopoly on digital comics, Guided View at least aspires to fidelity.

            But what then are the crucial failures of Guided View in representing print comics in digital form? What is lost? — what’s to be gained will close this essay. Charles Hatfield, in a seminal chapter of his Alternative Comics, an Emerging Literature, describes the “four tensions” endemic to the comics media and without which, arguably, a work cannot be called a comic. These are tensions between “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). Digital comics preserve, when in guided view, only ONE of these codes, which other scholars, Douglas Wolk included, argue are central to the definition of the medium. That code is the multiple codes, the definition of image-text, the interplay between word and picture. As long as you have both, you have one aspect of comics ticked off. What Guided View precludes, however, at least in most instances, are the other three codes, given you see one panel at a time and, as such can neither truly appreciate the panel as a part of a series nor a component of an overarching page architecture. Imagine trying to, assuming ignorance, understand while watching a film that what you are actually seeing is the mere result of light shining through a spiraling and sprocketed ribbon of photographic negatives. The same must be assumed of panels reproduced with animated transitions between (albeit user prompted). Thierry Groensteen, a titan of French comics scholarship writes of digital comics that reading them “entails the loss of a very strong, affectively charged object relation: the physical handling of the book, which involves both arms, or even the entire upper body, is replaced by intermittent pressure on the mouse from the reader’s index finger” (65). This refers back to Hatfield’s fourth tension, between the page and the object. The comic is a unique medium in the sense that, traditionally, beginning with the newspaper quarto republication of batches of comic strips and leading up throughout the Golden Age of comics, they were staple-bound newsprint quartos with a glossy cover to add some weight to an otherwise disposable periodical as ephemeral in importance (at least by outward appearance) as the latest Time or Ladies Home Journal. Only relatively recently have collections of previously published single issues become a de-rigour part of the comics publishing industry. These trade paperbacks generally encompass 5 or six issues of a given series and retail for slightly below the value of the individual issues. More recently these have been used by the comics direct market as an inroad into the book-store market, with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman volume 1 becoming the first comic trade-paperback to top the New York Times bestseller list in the late eighties and early nineties. The graphic novel, a perfect bound isolated narrative unit akin to the print (un-serialized) novel, is an even more recent development, arguably championed if not outright invented by Will Eisner with the publication of his A Contract with God, itself a collection of short stories. Comics endured the transition from floppy staple-bound ephemera to perfect bound brother of the graphic novel, but these media retained the essential physical character of their newspaper forebear. They were printed. They had to be lifted. The eye took in the whole and the part. As Darren Wershler-Henry says of ComiXology’s Guided View: “readers never see the entire page, which exists only as an organizational concept. On the iPhone, the program window and the screen edge are coterminous, and unlike Marvel’s digital subscriptions, the app has no page-view function so the “page” is entirely notional and the frame is the major unit” (133). This has since changed, but the reality remains one of progressing through panels as a slideshow. Awareness of the existence of a page unit is not the same as co-perception. Imitation of eye movement through animation is, likewise, not the same as the real deal, any more than the animated page flips of some e-readers actually signify what they do in a physical book. You still need to look at a progress bar rather than a width of pages to one side of the spine or the other to determine your progress and the user is keenly aware that, as in PDF readers, one could simply scroll down, the page divisions being merely an atavistic manifestation of the application’s function of printing the digital document.

            As Kashtan writes:

[i]f Guided View achieves this goal [mimicking the progress of a human eye across the comics page] with reasonable effectiveness, then one reason is the amount of care that goes into choosing the panel borders. In order for a page to be translated into Guided View form, a new set of decisions must be made that were not necessary when the comic was published in print form. Specifically, someone (or something) has to decide where to put the panel transitions. ComiXology’s patent application for the Guided View technology suggests that the conversion of a page to Guided View could be done algorithmically with no human intervention: ‘The border of a panel could be determined by automatically detecting the edges of a panel and creating a shape around the panel and/or finding the best fit for a rectangle around the panel.’ However, ComiXology seems to have chosen not to use this option. Instead, Guided View transitions are defined by ComiXology employees (an option also described in the patent)” (117).

This process may promise careful and considered decisions about the conversion, however, the inevitable compromise remains and even in conversion, employees are not the artists and their decisions inevitably, like those of any translator, impact the work and make something new. Moreover, the ideal of “careful” conversion is obviated, or at least was, by the pace at which publishers scrambled to offer their product to the digital market. From conversations with veteran editors, the duties of converting existing properties (as many as could be published for a buck) were generally passed off on interns and freelancers whose love of the medium was in no doubt, but whose abilities and the amount of time afforded them to perform the task, were often in short supply. ComiXology has since re-adapted many of these comics, but the question of ability on the part of adapters is still an important one in determining potential fidelity to the original.

            Neil Cohn further complicates the reader’s view of the comics medium by highlighting the division of labor inherent in titles like penciller, inker, writer, colorist, editor, etc. Particularly in work-for-hire and environments like Marvel under the early publishing guidance of Stan Lee, where plot-first style writing placed the onus of storytelling primarily on the penciller, the amount of credit due to any given contributor was often uncertain. These terms, too, contrast with a title like cartoonist, someone who does it all themselves, (they remain the most venerated practitioners of the medium precisely because of the still dominant auteur theory in media) but even they will often use fonts designed by others or hire a colorist, not to mention book designers. To add yet further layers, those of panel delineator and transition animator, to the mix would be to dilute the storytelling mechanics that can otherwise only be parsed via new critical approaches to textual analysis. Comics are a collaborative medium in most cases, but that collaboration does not extend as far as it does in film and theatre. To stretch this collaborative input into a single story further, I argue, is reason enough to delineate a new medium and underscore that comics translated thereinto ought to be considered, at least in some degree, compromised.

            Guided View utlizes a cinematic possibility in its animated transitions which, is described by Kirchoff, et al:

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud (1993) describes the act of ‘closure’ as the ‘phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole’ (p. 63). A gestalt process, this involves the reader cognitively completing the action between two or more panels, filling-up the blank space dividing the panels — dubbed ‘the gutter’ — by cognitively picturing the action in motion. Considered a foundational mechanism of comics by McCloud (1993), ‘closure’ enables the illusion of movement, temporality, and other sensations within a static art form, unifying ‘the visible and the invisible’ within perception (p. 92).” (p.13)

Even McCloud, I would surmise, would argue that Guided View, by nature of actually creating a movement that is a product of the media rather than the eye violates the static nature of comics as a form. Still images whether user prompted or not, displayed in sequence in time but not space, with transitions like the animated page flip, constitute something that is not comics. The infinite canvas may allow for the user to swipe through, but the user is always in control of the motion. There is not animation involved and, as such, the medium remains static.

Kirchoff et al are also considering, not just Guided View, but motion comics, a subset of the new medium I describe, which again incorporate animation. They could theoretically incorporate sound and haptic feedback like vibration as well depending upon the device upon which the comic is read. Experience, as always, is dependent upon materiality, a fact which it is perilous to ignore.

On the same tack as the elision of the gutter, Kirchoff et al refer to the comic page as a “database” which can be engaged with in a number of ways, from panels, to groups of panels, the whole page, etc. Leaving aside the gestalt intake of visual media, this view of the page as, in some sense, random access (a perception which is compelling considering how many people who did not grow up reading comics have difficulty deciding where to go from one panel to another, particularly in complex panel arrangements (early tiered comics and even some today use arrows to elucidate possibly confusing panel layouts such as a long panel adjacent to two wide panels, etc). This leads us to Manovich’s observation about the database being the enemy of the printed form (The Language of New Media). If it’s random access, is it even a codex? I would argue, yes. Comics have a language which must be parsed and learned like any other, but the fact that the visual elements of the page may be readable while the language is not, does lend comics a certain hyper-textuality that ironically makes the comics page ill-suited to screen presentation, while hypertexts are ideally suited to the screen. They further argue that

Guided View no longer follows database logic and, as such, makes it impossible to truly ‘mimic’ the comic readers’ eye motion and reading path, as Guided View is ostensibly trying to accomplish. While the collection of individual items — that is, the icons, the captions, the sound effects, speech bubbles [balloons!], etc. — are all identical to its print-based counterpart, the Guided Videw (presented in a style akin to how one might traverse a Prezi Presentation), by nature of where the ‘camera’ or ‘lens’ is placed, favors certain affordances of the comics’ page. In this particular case, the images are very much so privileged by way of using extreme close-ups for the icons […] Moreover, the freedom that the reader has in traversing the comics’ page — that is, the ability to freely navigate the page, such an important aspect of database logic, is removed. That is, choice is replaced by a singular path.” (38)

This is not to say that there is not a correct order in which to read comics, so much as to address the reality that comics pages, regardless of intent, are random access. Early attempts to clarify reading order saw artists like McCay and George Herriman in the Krazy Kat Sundays using numbered panels, even when there aren’t clearly delineated panel borders (Fig 2).

            Such numbers, however, were merely an atavistic impulse, as the language of comics developed. As the form solidified into a medium, comics became as much architectural as they were textual, a reality evident today in the heavily diagrammatic, almost blue-print-esque works of Chris Ware. Not only does comics afford structural possibilities impossible in a visual medium that does not work within the constraints of the printed page, it offers comparative story structuring possibilities which are necessarily diluted when the tension between panels in sequence and page surface are removed. You can, for instance, have three plots running in columns down a page such that any given row contains one panel from each plot, allowing the author(s) to juxtapose similarities and differences between those plots and draw a literal connection between otherwise separate timelines. The same effect is created by jump cuts and transitions in film and television, but here it is architectural in a way a written text could not be without the deployment of section breaks or the risk of becoming a jumble of information. Comics can further separate those storylines with lettering and coloring variations. Renée Tobe does a thorough reading of Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin from this architectural perspective. Nick Sousanis, a comics scholar as well as practitioner, in a comics essay, The Shape of Our Thoughts envisions comics as a medium capable of conveying without undue confusion on the part of the reader, the branching parenthetical storytelling style of his grandmother and the tangent prone scholar.  Sousanis says, “I think comics offer a means by which these intersecting narratives could be well-represented” (1). This idea is similar to filmic montage and transition decisions which provide unity to cinematic narrative, but, again, it incorporates that element unique to comics, of page architecture.

            To return to the question of digital comics as a medium possibility, I disagree with McCloud that transition to digital presentation could ever be possible without necessitating the acceptance of a new medium. Even accepting McCloud’s premise, however, his ideal of the “infinite canvas” is far removed from the reality of Guided View. The infinite canvas, when viewed on any device, would essentially function as just that, a canvas, with the screen acting as almost as the eye of a Ouija planchette, the user guiding this lens over portions of the canvas at their whim. This retains at least some of the random-access nature of the comics page as database whereas Guided View can travel only forward and backward, guiding you through with the same directorial force as sequentially projected images in a film, albeit with the minimal intercession of the user’s tap to prompt progression. These transitions are animated whereas the infinite canvas is merely a static image (a comics page) across which a lens, a genuine reflection of the eye, moves, although here again we lose the gestalt of the totality in gaining the infinite canvas.

            There is no lossless adaptation from print comic to digital. Guided View is just more egregious than the onerous process of zooming and moving about a miniaturized representation of a comics page on a screen. While this may pang of luddism, I argue that what Kashtan terms the ‘talismanic’ qualities of print comics are fundamental to the medium. He dismisses at least some of Lynda Barry’s work, particularly Syllabus, as anti-digital, suggesting that her only concession to digitality in her pedagogy is through the creation of a class Tumblr page. I would argue, however, that the mere suggestion that what Barry is doing is a “concession” admits to a fault in the premise of digital comics. Kashtan sees print and digital and cooperative, or at least foresees a future of co-existence and while I warrant this is prescient, I contest its desirability, precisely because we have to use this language of compromise. No novel was ever compromised in being adapted into a film. No film was ever compromised by having a novelization written. A film can only be compromised, at least in the pre-home-media era, by its being censored or altered for television. Kashtan calls Barry’s focus on materiality “biblionecrophilia” a term which suggests the inversion of hierarchy from print>digital to digital>print, a counterproductive mindset. If we allow this reversal to take full effect, we risk the possibility that both comics and the nascent medium of the digital comic will be forever mired in hybridity to the exclusion of invention and experimentation. Already, with the advent of digitization of print comics, there have been numerous editors (this, again, anecdotally gather from discussion with members of the comics industry) making suggestions to the effect that new print comics ought to be crafted with eventual ease of digitization in mind. This type of editorial fiat has already influenced comics in the case of DC’s digital first titles like Injustice: Gods Among Us, based on the video game, where each comic page, eventually printed, is divided halfway down, such that the top and bottom of each page are separate story units which are more easily displayed on landscape-oriented monitors.

Kashtan further refers to Hilary Chute’s contention that comics cannot be reflowed, while noting that some cartoonists, Charles Schultz and Ernie Bushmiller for instance, designed their strips with that possibility in mind (see figures 3 and 4). This does not, however, refute the fact that the strips were drawn from an initial viewpoint of their spatial orientation and that determined the reader’s progress through the strip. Creating with the possibility of alteration in mind is prudent, but hardly a proof against the incommensurability of four panels in sequence and four panels arranged in a square. To suggest otherwise would be as ludicrous as suggesting that an e-text that is a single line of text through which one scrolls until one reaches the story’s end, thus obviating the impact of line breaks, indents, and paragraph structure as a whole, is essentially identical to the same text in
traditional print layout with such features preserved (95).

To utilize the potential of the comics page and accentuate the tension between panels and between panels in sequence and the page surface (inherent even to a grid structure) is what Kashtan refers to as “Kindle proofing” a comic. He refers to this as a nostalgic turn, a paean for dying print media rather than cast it as an embrace of an inherent modal quality to comics. He separates Lynda Barry from Matt Kindt by highlighting the fact that while Barry’s recent work is heavily designed and difficult to break into chunks, Kindt’s uses the paper quality, texture, tendency to fade, etc, to contribute to the meta-narrative, but this reads as little more than elitism. If we are to take comics as a medium, some qualities must define that medium, and as discussed above, even a comics page easily broken into panels remains a unit of storytelling unto itself. Perhaps luddite concerns are a motivation behind so-called “Kindle-proofing” but centering the argument on assumed motives rather than empirical medium-specific qualities is short-sighted. As his own discussion of Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT demonstrates not only the use of the vertical dimension of the comics page, but the materiality of print and paper qualities as well when used as storytelling elements or embroiled in the meta-narrative. Kashtan suggests this development came about only in 2012, though he cites examples of such experiments as the four-page spread from as early as Jim Steranko’s work on 1968’s Strange Tales #167. Kashtan admits to a misleadingly dour tone in the second chapter, confessing that digitization and digital comics creation present opportunities for increased awareness of print comics’ materiality in crafting stories. My point of departure, however, is that comics are defined by that materiality. It’s not just a matter of degree, it’s the locus of the medium. Once we move to the realm of the digital, we are someplace else, someplace worth studying, but no longer in the world of comics. In chapter 3 Kashtan refers to the particular tactile experience of some web-comics; indeed web-comics offer not only animatic opportunities, but feedback opportunities, such as using a phone/tablet’s vibrate function, its speakers, etc, to augment the reading process. As haptic technologies develop, it may even become possible to mimic textural variations and create a page as screen. Despite such possibilities, however, what will result will not be a new medium because of their inclusion any more than film-scores cease to be music because they accompany motion pictures or films become not-films because of the advent of talkies. Even the precedent of live orchestras in silent theatres does not elide the fact that the medium remains intact with music or no, the same as comics will remain intact with the inclusion of pop-out elements or any other storytelling gimmick, but will not remain intact if broken into constituent storytelling units divorced from the whole. A piston is not an engine.

            Cohabitation between print and digital comics is as possible and inevitable as it was for print text and e-books. Douglas Adams once described books as the shark of technologies. It’s lasted so long because it’s the best at being what it is. Kashtan’s overall argument is for a detente, a symbiotic relationship wherein digitization doesn’t necessarily compromise the medium. I would argue that it inevitably does. In Kashtan’s own words, digitization “does” something to print comics. It compartmentalizes them. This is not McCloud’s “infinite canvas” which like 3-D photography allows the reader to move in all directions on a canvas that is viewed as through the eye of a Ouija planchette. Digitization is an unstable middle ground, unsuited to either medium and compromised as a result. Digital comics, whether on the infinite canvas or created as user directed slide-shows with/without animation, sound, tactile feedback, etc, are a new medium that requires its own method of study. We must be willing to delineate between media as ComiXology are willing to delineate panels even where there are no borders, or else risk oversimplifying the branching media and story-telling possibilities at artists’ disposal.

            At the risk of flogging a dead nail on the head, I gesture also towards Karin Kukkonin’s “Comics Analysis – A Basic Checklist” a handy starting point for any close reading of image-texts.

  1. What is the spatial layout of the page? Does the mise en page follow the classical three by three pattern [the nine-panel grid of Watchmen fame] or does it suggest an alternative reading path? How does the comic strike a balance between the ‘pregnant moments’ of the individual panels and the entire page?
  2. How do the characters relate to each other in the individual panels? How do their postures, gestures, and indicated movements underline the encounter? How do their bodies relate to each other across the page? What does the exchange of their deictic gazes tell you? How does this relate to the narrative?
  3. How do the facial expressions and the ‘pregnant moments’ of the image relate to the dialogue as it unfolds in the speech bubbles [balloons![1]]?
  4. How does the comic establish the storyworld?
  5. Does the comic present different perspectives on the events? Does it juxtapose different takes on what happens in the storyworld through the combination of panels, or the combination of words and images within a panel?

Answering most of these questions is impossible within Guided View. Juxtaposition of panels is impossible in a panel by panel presentation. This may be allayed by presenting some panels in guided view as a unified whole, but this only underscores the incommensurability of the mediums. In defining comics, the page (or canvas) must remain sacrosanct. Call else what you will, but don’t call it comics without qualification.

Perhaps this line of argument merely proves that digital comics and ComiXology’s Guided View are unsuitable for the purpose of scholarly analysis, just as a plain text version of a print book would fail as a substitute for literary analysis of a work where that analysis hinges on the materiality of the text at various points in its history, e.g. Shakespeare’s plays in folio and quarto forms, poems only available or attributed in manuscripts, etc. If we allow this, however, we are underestimating the reader. As Pauline Kael wrote of generations who have (at that point, would) grow up on movies seen on television and not in theatres, the tendency is to assume audiences in the past or future are dumber, when really the natural selection process of art has simply been obviated by capitalism meeting opportunity in the form of nigh unlimited ethereal storage space for what would otherwise molder in basements and bargain bins. No reader of digital comics (I hope) is fooled by the slick presentation of Guided View into thinking they’re getting the real McCoy (or the real McCay, as the case may be). The experience might be analogous, even pleasurable, but it doesn’t change the fact that week old room temperature camembert just ain’t the same. Even if the conseqences of resequencing are minimal as in figures 3 and 4, to argue there’s no difference is just foolish.


Text Box: How many panels are there in this comic? Defend your position as a hypothetical Guided View translator.

Finally, the future Kashtan points to of co-existence implies that Guided View’s stated goal of smoothing out the comics reading process for the neophyte is in some way desirable. Perhaps it is, to a limited extent, but Kashtan acknowledges the following:

Thus the basic problem with translating print comics into digital form is how to make comics readable without undue effort on screens that weren’t designed to display comics” (114-5).

How could they be? The undue effort is integral to the process of close reading and, I would argue, genuinely reading, any text or image-text. Ivan Rettberg has a more apt term “non-trivial” effort, which he proposes in Electronic Literature which “is required from the reader of a cybertext in order to traverse the text—and this understanding of how to move through the text must happen before any kind of interpretative reading can take place” (2). If comics are ever to completely and totally emerge from the cultural ghetto into which the artistic elite still sort the “fascist power fantasies” of costumed super-heroics, then the medium must stand its ground and demand to be treated as more than ephemeral. This can no longer be accomplished merely through curation — just as sub-par genre fiction now inundates the world of e-books as it did the world of pulps and paperbacks before. What is required is that readers be challenged, that effort be rewarded, and that enjoyment be contingent upon the success of the artist, not merely the pace, possible or actual, of ingestion. The page still matters. The print still matters. The constraints still matter. The fact that older comics are recolored for new editions should tell us that color artists have tremendous power over the presentation of the story and that materiality is paramount in criticism thereof. Even the discrepancy between print and digital evident in CMYK and RGB color values should be enough to prove that comics demand attention to the texture of the paper, the running of the inks, the mistakes, the erasures and the whiteouts, regardless of whether they are a part of an obvious meta-narrative. Those are what make comics comics.

            Where do we go from here? I should hope it’s clear the answer is not to create compromised half-breeds or unduly prescribe boundaries which limit rather than define media. Kashtan is hardly wrong in suggesting the imperative towards coexistence. I merely go further in suggesting that publishers ought to invest in artists who are eager to discover the boundaries of the new medium of so-called digital comics and stake out a territory all its own while safeguarding the essential features of comics as a print medium for scholars and readers to come.

Works Cited

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Karasik, Paul, Mark Newgarden, Jerry Lewis, and James Elkins. How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels. 2017.

Kael, Pauline. “Movies on Television.” The New Yorker June 3, 1967

Kashtan, Aaron. Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future. , 2018.

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[1] The work is translated from German, suggesting the translator may not be aware of scholarly conventions with regard to element nomenclature.