On Digital Comics Ruining How We Read Comics
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?
images by homard.net