Meanwhile is Big but not Boundless

Curator's Note

Crammed with nearly 4,000 possible storylines, Jason Shiga's Meanwhile (2010) is a cartoonish yet algorithmically complex graphic novel, pushing the limits of what comics can do with the printed form of the book. A Choose Your Own Adventure book on steriods, Meanwhile features an elaborate series of maze-like paths and tabbed pages to help the reader guide the protagonist Jimmy through his adventures with time travel and doomsday devices. In 2011, the legendary interactive fiction author Andrew Plotkin released (with Shiga's help) a digital version of Meanwhile. It's available as an iOS app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The Meanwhile app includes the entire contents of Shiga's graphic novel, but instead of tabbed pages, the reader uses the touchscreen interface to navigate through Jimmy's story.

As a kind of extreme, logical conclusion to the evolution of the codex, Meanwhile presents an edge case for digital comics. Reading the two texts side-by-side raises a number of questions. If Meanwhile can be successfully adapted to the digital form, why not other comics? If the Meanwhile app can make extensive use of the affordances of digital technology—such as what Scott McCloud calls the infinite canvas—why not other comics? And what aspects of the book does a digital rendering of Meanwhile reveal and obscure (in much the same way the two-dimensional Mercator Projection reveals and obscures—not to mention distorts—aspects of the globe)?

Finally, if we step back from the specific case of Meanwhile, what lessons can other creators and scholars of both print and digital comics learn? There are questions of interactivity and ergodic play, of space and pacing, of distance and nearness, of zooming and the z-axis, of cognitive ease and legibility, and many more. And as we pursue these questions, how can we keep in check our nostalgia and biases, approaching digital comics with open yet critical eye?


I think one interesting possibility is considering that the printed text is already digitally-mediated (if not digital in my strict definition), in that it was created with an algorithm. Perhaps another way to think about this text would be to call the print version a cybernetic comic. I really like, for example, Michael Chorost's attempt to set boundaries on Donna Harraway's definition of the cyborg in the book Rebuilt. He complains that almost everything is called cyborg: from interacting with the computer to receiving an artificial hip. But he mentions his cochlear implant as cybernetic because it has "the presence of software that makes the if-then-else decisions and acts on the body to carry them out" (40). The idea is that software directly influences his embodied experience, since algorithms in the cochlear implant translate to nerve impulses that are interpreted by the brain as sound. So, the cybernetic comic could be seen as a genre of print comics that rely on algorithms or software to calculate some portion of the structure of the narrative in an essential way. I think this could be one way of distinguishing cybernetic comics from the computer-generated comics of the 90s - most of which were storyboarded and written before designing the images on a computer.  

Meanwhile is a really fascinating example in terms of the relationship of narrative and space and navigable space that has implications for digital comics, narrative works, and other interfaces. For instance, digital libraries, archives, collections, and related are constructed to support the navigation of masses of materials, as well as individual materials, to be navigable. A frequent complaint against digital libraries and offsite library collections is that the shelves can't be browsed and can't allow for randomness and serendipity. This argument is made at the shelf-level of materials on a similar topic co-located together as well as for materials that are disconnected and only happened upon by walking through the library space on any number of paths through collections. There are a number of library-IT projects to present visual bookshelves using information from library catalogs (see Harvard's ShelfLife project for DPLA). The shelf visualization tools are being informed by close connections among materials (subject, call numbers, etc) but could be informed by many other concerns, including spatial navigation common and uncommon to library collections as a way to facilitate different types of interactions with materials and Meanwhile presents ways of thinking about this.

In thinking about zooming and nostalgia, Meanwhile also presents an interesting way of thinking about the distant reading of Superhero comics with multiple storylines around a single character at any given time and over time, as a way of reading many stories and possibilities for reading across stories.

I hope you'll excuse the plug, but just this very day I've finally completed a release version of my own take on digital comics as adventure game. A Duck Has An Adventure is now available on the Android market place here, with hopefully an iOS version to follow at some point later this year.

I've worked a lot in the past with branching narratives and the infinite canvas in my hypercomic work, but with Duck I'm trying to work towards a new form I'm calling "game comics" - games that use the key features of comics as the basis for their gameplay. If anyone's interested, here's a copy of the talk I gave at Transitions 2 last November which outlines the concept in a little more detail.

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