Last Friday I talked at The Design of Understanding about comics, specifically two futures for the medium that I’ve been processing for the last year or so. It seemed to go down pretty well, so I thought I’d put the gist of it here and link to a bunch of the things I referenced so the folks who went can buy some things.
I rattled through McCloud’s concept ‘closure‘ in quick-smart time; comics happen when readers comprehend panels and the spaces between them both as parts and a whole. The page, then, is the fundamental unit of a comic. By controlling the format of the sequence – by putting images on a page in a particular way – you begin guiding the reader through the narrative.
That gives creators a lot of room for spectacular feats – I used Young Avengers, One Soul and Hawkeye #11 as examples here – which play with the 150 year-old toolkit comic creators have to hand.
Here’s a thing though; the multiplicity of digital platforms – and the variety of potential reading experiences therein – shatter the certainty of the page.
The page is fucked. It’s not coming back. If you’re telling a story that’s available online then you no longer control the layout the reader sees. They’re tapping and swiping and pinching-and-zooming their way through your work, many of them without ever seeing the page as a whole and a few of them experiencing your stories only single-panel by single-panel.
The panel is now the fundamental unit of the comic
That’s a big change. Completely shifts the reader’s relationship with time and narrative. Very hard to come to terms with. On a basic level, it means creators may end up defaulting to Rupert-like stories comprised of flexible sequencing and extra bits of narrative that can be picked up or dropped on demand. But it also means you can treat the web like a page. Meanwhile‘s a great example of that, as is XKCD’s ‘Time’.
‘Time’ is actually an incredible thing; I didn’t watch it unfold religiously, but with gaps of hours or days between panels. That meant I was experiencing a radically altered form of closure where the imagined spaces between panels had a profound effect on my interpretation of the story. Now, of course, you can go to Time at your own pace and watch it as an animation. But that’s not how I experienced it. I came in alone to each panel, bringing my own gaps and imagined spaces and context, to experience it as a comic through time. You will never have what I had.
Tears in the rain
Thing is though, the web’s a flighty beast. Try reading Philippa Rice’s ‘Leaving’ now. It blew my mind when I first read it as it does today… right util the part where the links take you to MySpace and the trail runs cold. That’s not Philippa’s fault – that’s the goddamn web we built.
It’s not just the web. Try reading Chris Ware’s comic for the McSweeny’s app after updating to iOS7. SPOLIERS: You can’t.
The brilliant stories that make use of the possibilities of digital technology will fall victim to the obsolescence of that technology. And that’s okay; lots of what I experience here – online – is ephemeral, just as all the comics I’ve given away and traded in or sold have been lost to me. But I keep the issues of comics I think will matter to me, that I love. I need to get better at doing the same for the things I love online.
On a personal note, I’ve spent a year wondering what my relationship to the medium is. I’m too busy to do much about it – GDS occupies my brain to an astounding degree – but I know it can’t just be about making things that seal stories in print. But I’m also not sure how comfortable I am that the long-term future of any story I make for the web comes down to hoping that someone clicks ‘Save Image To Desktop’.
The future, then; the death of the page will mean some brilliant, beautiful experimental stories are going to blossom, but we’ll lose many of them – most, in fact – to the fluctuating rhythms of the network they’re published on.
This post skips a bunch of things I referenced in the talk, so here they are…
Robin and Young Justice
Lizzie Stewart’s webcomics
Cafe Suada by Jade Sarson
Kate Beaton’s comics and her holiday diary
Come in Alone and Freakangels by Warren Ellis
Leila Johnson’s ‘The Trouble With Comics’