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On Digital Comics Ruining How We Read Comics

comic book montageDo you know how you can tell that a digital medium has truly arrived?

It’s when the pundits start talking about how wonderful the old format is when compared to the new, and lamenting about the new format’s shortcomings. CDs (and later mp3s) had vinyl enthusiasts, ebooks have literati, and now digital comics have Sam Kern.

Writing over at Comics Alliance, Kern worries that the experience of reading a comic in digital form loses too much from the authentic comic experience:

Digital comics are making entire runs of mainstream comics accessible to anyone from anywhere — as long as they have an appropriate device. But have we really considered the effects of our transition to digital reading? Is it possible we’ve sold our comic soul to the technological devil, without realizing what we’ve done? Is Mephistopheles coming for the very characteristics that make comics a unique form of media?

But if your six-year-old starts reading comics on her iPad, is it really like the first time you teased open a paper copy? Is a two-page splash really equivalent on the Kindle? The nostalgic feeling of joy in the physicality of a comic book is important to me, and it’s not something I can get from a digital edition. It bothers me when that physicality is gone… but what concerns me more than anything, I think, is that digital comics are ruining the genre’s complex relationship to time.

Kern goes on to detail the subtle nuances of reading a paper comic book, but a lot of his arguments are based more on the skills he learned in reading paper comic books or on the size discrepancy of a particular comic book format (vis a vis the iPad) than on any intrinsic characteristic of paper vs digital.

He sees the two-page spread of the American single-issue floppy as the be-all and end-all of a comic book, and argues that when "you open a physical comic to a two-page spread, you have an idea of where the action is going before you even read the dialogue, because your peripheral vision can identify images even before you mean to".

What he misses is that not all of us can grasp the content of a two-page spread at a glance; I for one don’t have that skill (perhaps because I don’t read comics often enough or because I got a late start).

But more importantly, that two-page spread is native to a particular comic book format (American single-issue comics); it is less common in comic books with non-US or non-traditional page sizes, and it frankly does not work well when you’re reading a graphic novel.

But that matters less than the point that I see Kern confusing his familiarity with paper comic books and his lack of experience in digital comics as evidence that the former is superior to the latter.

And yes, Kern shows signs that he is unfamiliar with digital comics; near the end of his piece he offers a fig leaf of a counterpoint which glosses over the possible benefits of the new format while leaving out many examples of  digital comics which can’t be done in paper.

Bottom of the Ninth, for example, is a digital comic with a mix of animated and interactive elements. There’s also Madefire, with its Motion Books platform; or the late Deepcomix, which had an idea for 3d comics but not the resources to see it through.

Or most importantly, Kern talks about how time and space is so important to the comic reading experience while ignoring Marvel’s use of additional frames in a digital comic as a way of conveying motion, time, and space (an idea Mark Waid pioneered with his indie press Thrillbent).

My point, folks, is that Kern is focusing solely on the ways that comic book artists and readers have perfected the paper form while ignoring the many new ideas that digital comics make possible. He mistakes the fact that the skills (both artistic and reading) don’t transfer easily from one medium to the next as evidence that the old is better while failing to acknowledge that some traits already have transferred.

As I see it, Kern find digital comics inferior because they can’t do what he values, and because he doesn’t see the value of the new.

Or did I miss something? Do you think something is lost when comcis are read in the digital form?

Comics Alliance

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Anthony December 21, 2015 um 11:26 pm

Given today’s 6 year olds are growing up with digital comics, this *is* their introductory reading experience. They’re also getting kid-friendly material (which none of the comics pictured in that article are) that doesn’t rely on two-page spreads/other "Big Two" storytelling techniques.

Loïc December 22, 2015 um 8:35 am

The original piece is just an old man rambling who looks like he has never used a comics-sized tablet and who do not see what problems have physical comic books.
Sure, on the small tablet, the 2 pages spreads are an ugly affair, but with anything with at least 9″ and a decent retina-like resolution (280+ ppi density), your beloved spread is not partially cut by the ugly separation between the two pages and that’s just gorgeous and glorious. You can even now read it on a huge 4k computer screen.
Also, it was a pain to gain access to old and rare comics. Digital comics solve the problem. So while connoisseurs might be scandalized, new comics explorers are now able to get instant access to almost any comic and go through thousand of previous issues for almost nothing with a subscription service. It has never been a better time to read and (re)discover comics.

Nate Hoffelder December 22, 2015 um 8:37 am

@ loic

Yes, exactly. That’s why I drew the comparison with vinyl.

Medium Punch December 22, 2015 um 10:52 am

Before tablets started becoming an affordable/common item, I spent at least a decade reading fan translated Asian comics & hard-to-come-by western region comics on desktops and laptops.

Tablets, especially large 9+ inch ones with good screens, just make the task easier and more relaxing.

I remember wishing hard that comic companies/publishers would start making their works available digitally to bring down the ridiculous price of their physical copies & open up their archives or back issues. Which has mostly come to pass.

I’m not completely digital though. I mainly buy the collected trades, sometimes single issues if they’re at a good discount, but the pricing of many physical comics drove me to go digital.

His rant feels like an inflated overreaction and comes off as nonsensical with his vague arbitrary argument that the digital medium somehow disrupts comic time.

Medium Punch December 22, 2015 um 11:04 am

DEEPLY sorry. That should be "her" not "his".

Paul December 22, 2015 um 11:25 am

I think its actually dependent on what comic they are reading. I get a string of political cartoons delivered to my email address every day. Doonesbury is republishing cartoons from the 80s in his strip. What’s interesting is that unlike the modern cartoons designed on computers, the text is so fuzzy I have to 2x the size to read the text. I suspect it will be the same in the comic store. Older comics designed print first will be harder to read than those designed for digital first. (same debate as above but different rationale over why it can be a problem).

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Dan June 10, 2016 um 11:56 am

Digital is better in literally every possible way IMO.

It’s absolutely cool if you personally PREFER print, but when you start going on clueless, crybaby rants about why Print is so much better then you just make yourself look beyond stupid.

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