The future of the comic book and the academic journal?

My recent experience in digital publishing, in my roles – two of my many roles – as editor of Cinema Journal and as scriptwriter of My So-Called Secret Identity, suggests how far online content has come and how far it has to go; what it can do differently from traditional media, and where its perceived limitations lie.

Expanding CJ’s online reach and content was a key aspect of my application for the editorship, and it’s been warmly supported by the SCMS executive – and, I’m glad to say, welcomed by the journal’s readership, which has in turn been expanded by our online initiatives. I work with Chris Becker, in the newly-created role of CJ Online Editor, to implement the strategy I outlined in my application, and already we are starting to take it further, building on the success of this initial phase. So far we partner with Antenna for conference reports and In Media Res for ‘In Focus’, with our ‘Afterthoughts and Postscripts’ feature (inviting author reflections on their own articles) hosted on the CJ page, and the innovative podcast Aca-Media, run by Chris with Michael Kackman, on its own site. The underlying idea was to increase the opportunities for dynamic interaction with the journal, allowing it to ‘overflow’ from the core text (the print version) and enter scholarly conversation in a range of different ways.

At around the same time, I launched My So-Called Secret Identity, [illustration from Issue 3, above] best described as a feminist collaborative superhero comic; I first described it as ‘building a better Batgirl’. I funded the initial set-up myself, paying developer Lindsay Searles to build the site in collaboration with me and the two primary artists Sarah Zaidan and Suze Shore. My reasons for online publishing were very simple: it seemed the quickest and most effective way to reach an audience. My aim for MSCSI was primarily to get the project out there, to prompt discussion and maybe change some minds about women in the superhero genre (and to tell a good story with great art, along the way). Setting up a website and then publicising it through every contact I could pull favours from – social media, traditional media, academia – was the most immediate way of getting our work to a readership. We very quickly gained 1500 fans on Facebook and 700 on Twitter, and even more significantly, funded our next three issues and supported a women’s refuge charity (raising about $4000 total) through our donations page.

So with both projects, I’ve been very much involved with digital publishing during 2013, and it’s proved very successful. However, it’s striking, in the context of these multiple online initiatives, how important the printed page remains to so many people. One of the most frequently-asked-questions about MSCSI is ‘when’s it coming out as a printed comic’ – the artists, too, were very keen to hold a copy in their hands – and many people responded to my digital CJ plans with ‘what’s going to happen to the actual journal?’ In the latter case, my online strategy is always backed up with a reassurance that the journal remains the core text, with the digital platforms circulating like satellites around it. In the former, we’ve made a deal to publish the first two issues with Geeked magazine in November 2013, and the response has been ecstatic – almost as if the comic is becoming ‘real’, for many readers, for the first time. Despite the enthusiasm for digital innovation, I’ve found that old habits, old tastes, and old preferences die hard.


Well, I was going to start this comment about 45 minutes ago, but MSCSI wouldn't let go of my attention.

After having spent some time with the comic, I can see why people might crave a hardcopy. The artwork, especially, struck me as very warm and like something that would feel more at "home" on the printed page. There is a host of psychological research and the mind's reaction to art that I'm not familiar enough with to comment on here, but the artwork and writing of the MSCSI certainly step outside of the notion we have of a "webcomic." There is probably something about our Western idea of "ownership" tied up in that desire as well.

I definitely see what you're saying here, Matt. When I think of webcomics, I generally imagine a format closer to a comic strip with shorter story arcs. As this develops from print comics (trying to create a feminist Batman) it takes on many of those print conventions. I wonder if more than anything, though, people enjoy a convergence of media. Something almost doesn't feel real until it has a print presence, an online presence, and maybe some kind of merchandise. Current consumption models seem to have us looking for these multiple outlets. 

I think this post is very much in conversation with Tim Stinson's from yesterday, where in Will Brooker has become author, editor, publisher, and financier. However, in this instance, this text has become a sustainable model as it has borrowed business techniques. If we could do this for academically minded comic books, could we also do it for more academic texts? I don't think scholarly writing lends itself to this model. We would have to find different models, or really rethink the genre of scholarly writing. 

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