What makes a comic digital?

Curator's Note

Are digital comics digital because they are created using digital tools? Maybe, but the definition would lose meaning since most comics produced today are created using Photoshop or distributed through digital applications like Comixology or Graphic.ly. I’m more sympathetic to the idea that a digital comic exploits digital technology to create an experience that is uniquely enjoyed in a digital environment. I have two examples that serve, for me, as illustrations of what digital comics can do.

Chris Ware’s Touch Sensitive, created for McSweeney’s, explores the touch interface of the iPad by comparing it with, as is stated in McSweeney’s description, a world where “the act of touching seems to shift from that of affection to aggression.” As readers move from the early panels, which feature pleasurable swipes that float from one linear panel to another, they gradually move into sequences where panels flicker in and out of the composition. Furthermore, the touch-swipe feature is complemented with a sudden shift in panel composition towards the end, which imagines a future where direct touch has been entirely replaced with haptic interfaces. The experience of reading the text mirrors the growing alienation of the characters from each other. Ware has a large personal investment in book publishing and design, and this investment is reflected in the lavishly produced covers and book-jackets featured on several of his comics. In Touch Sensitive he parodies the simulation of touch on the iPad and in digital culture but creates a very different encounter with touching in the process. 

Second, Evan Young’s The Carrier uses GPS, email, text message features, and the internal clock of the iPhone to construct a serialized story about espionage and amnesia. Each of the chapters of The Carrier is delivered in real-time and over a period of ten days. If, for example, you read the first chapter at 3:30, you will receive the next chapter 45 minutes later. Text messages lead the reader to webpages that feature polls or other interactive features. Certain GPS coordinates unlock further features, like community contributed Flickr images or hidden email messages. While not as critically or aesthetically sophisticated as Ware’s comic, Young’s The Carrier extends the digital comic into a multimedia ecology of interrelated content and invites readers to help create the story.


Chris Ware's use of the touchable screen interface is interesting considering some of the affordances for print comics. For instance, in Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, the chapter on "The Frame" includes sections on "The Page as a Meta Panel" and "The Super Panel as a Page" explores affordances of the page and panel that are changed when the primary mode becomes the touch interface of the iPad screen.  Ware's use of the touchable screen interface expands structures and affordances from print comics into the digital medium and specifically for the touch screen interface as it relates to the narrative. I find Ware's use of the touchable screen to mirror alienation in the narrative particularly evocative for thinking about works like NYPL's Biblion exhibit app. The Biblion app seeks to support exploration of an exhibit through the touchable screen interface in a manner that is framed, in some ways, like a comic panel with the screen like a window. The Biblion app also attempts to make the screen an exploratory space with different ways to navigate the exhibit items and stories. In some ways, I would posit (based on my experience with the Biblion app) that the goals for the Biblion app are not fully realized because the interface seems to be used more technically and less affectively, something that could be informed and possibly improved by Ware's use of the touchscreen. With Young's The Carrier, there are immediate connections to other forms like video games, so I'm curious as to your thoughts on how Ware's Touch Sensitive relates to other forms?

I haven't seen Touch Sensitive, but it reminds me of certain Nintendo DS games where the act of drawing on the screen with a stylus is incorporated in some way into the diegetic gameworld. For example, in Trauma Center the stylus represents a scalpel and other surgical tools. In GTA: Chinatown Wars, you use the stylus as a screwdriver. I like this sort of thing because it involves a certain self-awareness of materiality, an awareness that the material means by which the reader/player interacts with the text is actually a part of the text. 

@Laurie and @Aaron: I also think of digital fiction like Andy Campbell's Spawn. If you look at the site, you'll see that portions of the text appear and disappear based upon clicks from the mouse. It's not as haptically realized as Touch Sensitive (I'm left wondering why there isn't an iPad app for the piece), but it is another artistic form that is beginning to experiment with touch. 

But I also think that Ware is parodying haptic interfaces in general as a second-order materiality. The description mentions that this is "his first (and likely final iPad-only comic strip" and describes Ware as "our otherwise normally corporeal cartoonist." I keep thinking about how a piece like this plays upon the less conscious interfaces on eBooks and the comic book apps I mentioned above. I'm addicted to my Kindle Fire, and love reading books on it even more than "ordinarily corporeal" books. For me, it's an issue of interface. I like how pages glide as I swipe my finger. I have the feeling that people who consider digital comics as less corporeal or less material are suffering from what Nick Montfort identifies as screen essentialism: the idea that nothing material lies underneath the human-user interface.

 I'm glad I discovered this; I'm looking forward to the whole week. It's been very good to read Roger here! 

I addressed some of these issues in my PhD. You'll get an idea in this presentation from 2009. Ware's McSweeney's iPad app hadn't come out yet, but you'll see I showed Ware's work as well to discuss the role of materiality in comic book textuality. 

Ware's app is even more interesting because it comes from Ware himself, an author who has fully engaged in materiality-as-meaning through his Acme Novelty Library, sketchbooks, book covers (including McSweeney's), etc. 

I guess everyone agrees that though a printed book was made with digital tools (word processors, desktop publishing software etc.) a printed book is, well, a book. What text is created today, completely or partially, without digital tools? E-books are e-books if they are read on digital reading devices. Digital literature would be different: it is media-specific, born digital, made for digital reading and digital readers, for the capabilities and parameters of existing technologies. Something similar happens with comics.

Nevertheless, unlike prose, comics created to be read on print or inheriting the conventions of a medium originated within print culture are forced to a layout "reassembly" when adapted to screens. (I wrote a bit about it on my HASTAC blog). ComiXology's 'Guided View' is witness to this reassembly: though the text or publication to be read was not necessarily designed to be read digitally, the digital reader, the digital channel of distribution imposes a way of reading. We are back in 1995, when in his famous "The Wheel of Culture" article Ben Davis invoked Yeats : how can we tell the dancer from the dance?





@Ernesto: Your talk looks really interesting. And, yes, I agree that Ware's iPad comic is more interesting b/c of his investment in material culture. I'd love to see what Ted Striphas says about this discussion. He and Jay David Bolter use the phrase "the late age of books" to designate our current historical moment in which "books have become ubiquitous social artifacts" and have also been transformed "from industrially produced stuff into 'sacred products' (and sometimes back again)" (9). It seems like Ware's approach to both digital comics and print comics falls into the tension Striphas identifies in book selling and marketing. 

 A few months back, I had the privilege of writing about motion comics for In Media Res.  I've never much cared for them and I was curious to see where else digital technologies would take the comic book form.  Most of my experiences since that piece came out have been limited to Comixology or the DC Comics application although I thank Roger for highlighting the Chris Ware app, which I have just downloaded and worked my way through.  What I appreciate about Ware's "Touch Sensitive" (and yes, it does seem to be making light of how wired in our culture is and where that could potentially head) is that it keeps the McCloudian act of closure, even if it goes on to frustrate it.  Unlike most motion comics, the digital comic tends to retains that unique property, be it Ware's application or even the DC Comics app (reading Batman #5 on an iPad was quite the experience).  I've seen it in a few motion comics (most notably the "Inception" motion comic) try to bridge multimedia presentation with viewer interaction, but I don't tend to find that form of readership very rewarding.  

I think Motion Comics are really interesting, mostly in terms of how much they fail to "add" to the stories that are adapted. One of my colleagues did a presentation on Motion Comics for a paned I chaired, and he mentioned the same thing: namely that motion comics try to engage interactivity but often fail.  

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