In a recent episode of the podcast we spoke in passing about the “future of comics,” in the context of digital releases. In that conversation we touched on both motion comics and infinite comics, and I wanted to speak about both types of comics a little bit more and the future of digital comics in general, because I think we are in an important moment of transition right now in terms of the way that graphic narratives are presented.
Comics possess an entire visual language with its own particular lexicon and kind of grammar. Word balloons, for example, are a piece of visual grammar. They do not correspond to anything in reality, but they are a commonly understood element of the visual language of comics. By the same measure so are the breakdowns of panels and pages, as well as graphic elements such as motion lines, swirlies, anger fumes, and any number of other visual flourishes which artists employ to depict certain actions or emotions. There are even dialects, of sorts, within comics. Japanese comics depict rapid motion differently than western comics do. They also have their own visual language for depicting emotions like embarrassment or extreme anger, such as the enormous sweat drop.
But imagine for a moment a comic which could change to reflect where the reader is when it is read. Read it in one place, and it is set in New York City. Read it in another and the panels magically change and it is set in Seattle. Read a panel and watch a character actually blushing red, or hear the click as a gun is cocked. Instead of turning a page, tap on a panel and watch it expand to fill the screen as a whole new page.
With the advent of abundant digital technology and the ability to produce high quality images on a computer, the limitations of pen and paper no longer apply in the way they once did. The transition to the digital platform completely upends the necessity for what we think of as bedrock elements of comics. What is a comic page if you can continue scrolling down infinitely? What is the point of word balloons if dialog can be read aloud? Why use motion lines when you can use actual motion? With a digital medium, a nigh-infinite number of possibilities become open which are impossible on a static paper comic.
With so much that was once assumed now uncertain, we have an opportunity to explore an whole new kind of artistic medium. While digital comics still utilize the visual language of print comics, much of that language is skeuomorphic—it exists only to the extent that a new language has not yet evolved to supplant it. But we are also confronted with the question, what is the fundamental nature of a comic? In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud does an excellent job of breaking down terms like “graphic novel” and “sequential art” and really gets down to the basic elements that comics are composed of. I’m not going to attempt to recreate that entire explanation here. If you haven’t read Understanding Comics, I highly recommend it.
There is one page, however, that I want to reference since I think it gets at the real essence of what makes a comic a comic. In Chapter 4 of Understanding Comics, McCloud talks in some detail about the way in which space and time are co-mingled on a comic page. Although a page is static, it depicts the passage of time both from panel to panel and WITHIN each panel. It is this principle which elevates sequential art from a series of static images to a story. As your eye scans across and down the page you create the illusion of time and motion. In this sense comics are like books, in that the story moves at a pace determined by the reader. Flip quickly through a story and the moments speed by. Linger on a panel and time stands still.
And this creates interesting repercussions for comic books as a medium. A filmmaker chooses their shots, making quick cuts or long tracking shots as they like and demanding the audience sit and observe. A comic artist lays out a page in the same way, choosing the size, shape, number, and relation of panels. The size and relation of the panels works in the same way as the cuts in a movie. A comic reader, however, is an active participant in the experience. They choose where they put their eyes, and thus what is emphasized. A skilled artist is one who knows how to draw the reader’s eye to put it where they want it. But no matter how skilled that artist is they can’t command the reader. At best they can suggest a path which is easy to follow.
This metaphor of “space as time” can also be used to unusual effect, as in this page from Grant Morrison’s The Filth, below. Seen as a snapshot—a single moment in time—it makes no literal sense. As a reader you have to recognize that you’re seeing fourth-dimensionally across time. The scene plays forward as you read down and across the page. Time and space are one and the same.
That is the central metaphor by which comics have been drawn for over a century, and it is the rule that comic creators must be most cautious about breaking. Unfortunately, when looking at what is being produced as “digital comics” by the traditional comics publishers we see this rule being broken into a million pieces. The two most prominent examples I’ve seen are motion comics and infinite comics (or DC2, if you’re a fan of the distinguished competition).
For the uninitiate, a motion comic is a limited animation video with voice work and music. Panel-like frames with small amounts of motion—such as a door opening or a mouth moving—are laid over with a narrator reading dialog. Quite honestly the term “comic” in this sense is a misnomer, being more akin to a short film than a comic.
An infinite comic is a recent invention of Marvel, “tak[ing] advantage of the digital format with techniques that would not be possible in a print comic, like dynamic panel transitions and captions or dialogue boxes that appear sequentially on an image at the prompting of the reader.”1 In essense it’s a traditional comic crudely mated to a flip-book. As you flip the digital pages additional content slowly fills the page.
Motion and Infinite comics both break the central metaphor of “space as time.” In the former case we’re looking at a movie; the video plays at the rate it plays. Time is a constant. In the latter case, the forward progression of time becomes a factor of the click. Rather than absorbing the moment in an analog fashion—your eye tracking across the page in the way that makes most sense to you—it is digital. There is a moment, you click, there is another moment.
It’s my feeling that neither truly work because they remain tethered to the visual language of traditional print comics, while at the same time breaking that central metaphor. They are, in essence, translations; a feeble and wrongheaded attempt to adapt the visual language of a comic book—word balloons, panels, and pages—to a digital form. Inelegant, overly literal translations at that. Clicking to unveil each panel is orthogonal to the nature of comics. It adds nothing.
What is needed is for digital comics to be written in the native tongue of the digital medium. Scott McCloud (again) took up this idea in his follow up work, Reinventing Comics, with his concept of the “infinite canvas.” The idea was that—being unconstrained by the physical limitations of a piece of paper—a digital comic could be of any size or dimension. It was a good thought, but in hindsight McCloud was thinking small—and indeed, he himself has expanded the idea over time to encompass new experimental forms of comics as they have evolved.
In my mind, the best and most prominent example of a truly digital-native comic created thus far—and by that I mean a comic which cannot be converted from in its original form to paper without losing something of its essential character—is Homestuck. If you are unfamiliar with Homestuck, it is a “comic” in the traditional sense only in that it is a sequence of images that conveys a narrative. It in large part abandons the visual language of print comics and instead creates its own pidgin tongue out of several others. There are no word balloons, nor are the pages broken down into panels.
The basic unit of Homestuck is a webpage, which contains a single illustrated panel, with dialog conveyed through a text-log beneath the image. The panel may be static; have a brief looping animation; a long non-looping animation; interactive elements; not be a panel at all but a mini-game of one of several genres including adventure, exploration, side-scrolling beat-em-up, or RPG; and may or may not include music. Well over a dozen full-length albums of music have been produced as a part of the comic.
At times the image (animated, interactive, or otherwise) may escape the confines of the panel and move into the header, or take over other elements of the webpage which were presumed to be “outside” the confines of the narrative (much as Animal Man once escaped the confines of the panels in order to hide in the gutters of his comic page universe). Often elements of the panel can be clicked on to find additional content. Pages which are games contain cheat codes which become a textual part of the story. The story branches at times, and rather than being constrained to push through it in a straight line, as one would with a stack of paper pages, you can choose the order in which you care to resolve events.
Quite simply, it embraces on every level the fact that it exists in a digital medium. Even one of the core conceits of its narrative—the omnipresent command line interface through which the characters are being directed (ostensibly by the audience, as in Homestuck creator Andrew Hussie’s prior work, Problem Sleuth)—is a nod to the fact that a given Homestuck page is not “finished” in the way that traditional printed comic page is when you read it. Rather, it is a living work that reacts and evolves in response to the readers, and due to its digital nature could even change retroactively, well after a particular page or event has been published.
In those pages where it takes on the aspect of a traditional comic it preserves the “space as time” relationship. Yet when it transforms into a movie or a video game or a whatever it abandons that relationship, replacing it with the language of the form it is taking at the moment. In so doing, Homestuck evolves into something more than its constituent elements. It is at once a representation of what is possible in a digital medium, but also only a first faltering step towards what digital comics may one day become.
Ultimately, the digital medium has a lot of offer when paired with the concept of sequential art. As we’ve discussed on the show numerous times there are any number of ways that a traditional comic may have value added to it in a digital medium—such as being able to dynamically select different art layers to see how the pencils differ from the inking. But none of those really affect the content of the comics, nor do they in any way embrace the new kinds of storytelling that are made possible within a digital medium.
That’s a space that’s only really being explored on a very experimental level. I appreciate the fact that Marvel and DC want to explore what’s possible in a digital space, but what they’re offering up as “digital comics” manage to add nothing of value while wrecking one of the core elements that makes traditional comics work as a narrative. I’ll be following the evolution of digital comics closely, and I’m sure that as that space matures we’ll get to see our favorite characters rendered in this new medium, just as we have in animation and on the movie screen. But in the meantime, it’s my fondest wish that Marvel and DC would take their infinite/motion comic bullshit, and fuck right the hell off. It’s garbage, and they should know that it’s garbage. Shame on them both.