I will explore developments in the narrative structures of comics that have occurred during the shift in publishing from print to digital. I have demonstrated the developments I explore by making a digital comic.
The move to digital publishing raises many questions about what is intrinsic to comics and what were limits or conventions created by the technology of print based media. New software challenges the need for many of the methods of layout and creates opportunities for new methods of reading patterns, many of which are based on animation. Digital comics also create room for animation within the comic panels, but at what point does animation take a work beyond the boundary of what is a comic.
My comic is created in a moment when technological developments available to artists allow us to challenge what is the boundary of a comic in digital format. In my digital comic, 'Gorky and Izzy's trip to Mexico' I build on the inherent structures of the visual languages used in comics and attempt to find the boundary of where animation is acceptable.
The development of digital comics
In comics the shift to digital created a contradiction not seen in other sectors like music and film. Comics have traditionally been designed by artists to be printed in book or newspaper format, with some exceptions. The first digital comics were mainly created as unique projects and were either distributed using websites or with software (McCloud 2000). In order to meet rising demand for digital comics and to combat online piracy companies created digital comic reading application, ComiXology being the most successful so far (Flamm 2013).
The majority of the first comics to be distributed via comic apps were clunky reproductions of print based comics (McCloud 2000). The layouts made for print did not fit the layout of the screen and a number of work-a-rounds were created for comic apps.
ComiXology created Guided View™, the most notable solution to displaying print based comics digitally (Hatfield. 2012). Artists quickly took advantage of the Guided View™ technology to begin creating comics, purpose designed for digital reading. Some artists continued to develop the format of digital comics outside of comic apps creating custom solutions.
The developments in technology by companies and independent artists have opened new forms of delivering the content of a comic that could not have been possible in print or even early digital readers. Now artists are challenging many of the established systems in comics that defined the reading experience. The new technology in digital delivery, animation and sound forces us to ask, at what point does a work cease to be a comic?
Structure and layout in print and digital comics
A number of reading structures, sometimes referred to as 'rules' were developed for print comics due to the technology of the page and book.
Readers in the western world follow a 'Z-path' (Cohn 2013, p.91) of reading a page based on the system of reading text in western languages. Because the 'Z-path' has become the norm, it has become the expected reading path and is referred to as the 'unwritten contract between artists and readers (McCloud 2006, p32). Print based comics required a system for readers to follow because the order of panels were fixed. Without a visible ordering of panels, i.e. numbered panels or arrows to follow, an invisible path had to be agreed upon.
Digital presentation of comics allows for artwork that is not fixed by print. Panels can transition in a number of ways that break the 'Z-path' but are still readable by the audience (Goodbrey 2014). For example, a page can begin with no panels and have them appear one by one. The order in which the panels appear now guides the reader, not the layout. It is possible that new patterns of reading to be explored with new technologies available in digital delivery (McCloud 2000, p. 226-228). Breaks in the expected grammatical structure of comics can be jarring to the reader (Neil Cohn 2014). Because the convention of reading is still based on print panels which appear in an order different to the 'Z-path' can be jarring to the reader.
To ensure readability, the artist still needs to keep a coherent structure to the panel order. Comic are based on the juxtaposition of images and therefore panels do not make sense in isolation. Grammatical structures still exist between panels based on the content within those panels. If the transitions between panels become unrestrained it is problematic for the understanding of the reader (Cohn 2013, p. 67-68).
In print, when a reader turns a page they would be capable of seeing the entire page before reading it in order. This meant that the only place a reader could be surprised was at the top left of a new page. The flexibility of panels appearing at the will of the artist now means that the reader can be surprised at any moment (Goodbrey2014).
The segmentation of the narrative is another structure that the technology of print confined comic art to. The comic was segmented first into a volume, book or edition, then into pages within that collection. The digital production of comics has already broken down these barriers (McCloud 2000, p. 220).
The practice of fitting a narrative into a book format is no longer necessary. Artists can add to their comic as they create new work making a book that potentially never ends. Comics can also now be made with endless pages. Web pages allow readers to scroll on through an infinite page (McCloud 2000). The method of laying out panels in page like structures, whether infinite or not, can also be rejected. Artist Daniel Goodbrey has created comics where the entire comic can be seen at once and then zoomed into. His comics even contain multiple reading paths decided by the viewer (Goodbrey 2013).
Comics with infinite pages that do not use some form of segmentation become confusing and too large for the reader to understand. The human mind requires some form of segmentation to process a narrative. The page is becoming an outdated technology, but the segmentation that is based on the page is still valid (Goodbrey 2014).
Many artists have begun segmenting their comics based on screens. The screens have varying sizes and number of panels since new panels can be introduced or old ones replaced. This creates small sentence like sections of the narrative that the reader can process as whole units rather than an unlimited amount of individual panels. The size of these segmentations are now completely decided by the artist and not forced into the technology of print (Groensteen 2013).
Animation in digital comics
With the shift to digital a new opportunity for animation within comics has been created. Most digital comic readers do not have the technology to support forms of animation other than a page turning effect.
ComiXology's guided view is exception in that it allows for animated panel transition and movement across the page. By tapping the screen, readers can initiate the new transition. These include a fade in or out, a slide across a work of art and a zoom in or out.
Technology that allows for additional forms of animation has been developed for individual web comics and stand alone applications. Comics like 'Magic Inkwell' by Cayetano Garzo opened new doors into animation within the comic panel by using gif animations. Other comics by Marvel and Star Wars experimented with action oriented animated sequences and sound.
Stills from comics using .gif's by Cayetano Garzo (Garza 2001)
So when does the technology of animation and sound take a work past the point of being a comic?
Comics are based on a grammatical structure that is relevant whether the comic is in a print or digital format. The base of comics is juxtaposed pictorial elements that reader can observe and compare at will. Cohn defines these as lower level structures which follow an arc and have a defined beginning middle and end. By glossing over the transitions, film and animation remove these lower level structures (Fantom Headquarters, 2014).
Another key element of comics is that the reader is in control of the pace. As soon as the narrative is being prescribed a set amount of time either through animation or sound, the reader looses their control. Therefore animations which show cause and effect within a panel would cease to be comic. Sound is problematic as well because it is experienced at a predefined pace and not at the will of the reader. According to Groensteen (2013) animated panel transitions are not in complete contradiction with the readers control of the comic because the reader directs them and they do affect the content within a panel.
Digital comic book author and editor Mark Waid (O'Reilly 2013) notes that:
'What makes comics comics, what makes graphic novels a unique medium is that like another form of reading you are in control of the pace at which you absorb the story. And the moment you add sound effects, the moment you add bells and whistles, movement and so forth. Any element of time that you add to that externally, that means as a reader now I'm just being lead around by the nose.'
Stills from 'Niko and the Sword of Light' (Imaginism Studios 2013)
'Niko and the Sword of Light' (Imaginism Studios 2013) is advertised as comic but in reality is a series of animations that reference the structure and visual grammar of a comic. The work uses animation to illustrate the action sequences in the narrative and therefore overrides the lower level structures defined by Cohn and other practitioners.
This however leaves a space for atmospheric or looping animation which does not advance the plot of the narrative, but merely embellishes a static frame. An animation in this style can be abstract or a literal representation. It can also embellish a single moment or a panel representing a prolonged space of time. Because an atmospheric animation loops and is viewable for as long as the reader stays in the segment where it is present, it does not interfere with the reader's control of pace (Goodbrey 2014).
Framing to increase drama
In visual narratives like comics and film, areas of extended dialogue and moments with limited character or camera movement can become boring to the audience. Varying camera angles and inventing camera movement can help retain the audience's attention and if done well can better describe the narrative.
'Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work!!' (Wood 1981)
References for artists like 'Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work!!' exist to assist artists in creating variety in sections of dialogue. In Wood's cheat sheet he gives a number of examples of panels. When applied they create where the characters and camera move in relation to one another based mainly on what Scott McCloud describes as moment to moment sequences, along with action to action and subject to subject (McCloud 1993, p. 74).
Camera angles and movement can be used to accentuate the emotions that a character or scene is conveying (Every Frame a Painting 2015). Certain camera angles can alter the nature of a character. Jeremy Vineyard notes that, 'A Dramatic Angle adds to the emotional impact of a scene. A low camera angle makes a character and objects seem tall and powerful. A high camera angle gives the characters a diminished feel - as if the audience is looking down on them.' (Vineyard 2008, p. 15).
Framing of background and scenic elements can also be used to add to the atmosphere of a scene. During the film noir movement, which I have heavily referenced in my work, Hollywood began experimenting more with fragmented and angled compositions. Shots which made the character look small in contrast to an expansive city were also used to show alienation in an urban landscape. These techniques were influenced by refugees of Fascism like Fritz Lang who brought with them the tradition of German Expressionism (Schrader 1972).
In the western visual languages characters are almost always seen in relation to their setting. This limits the variations camera angles and scenic compositions that can be used. In the Japanese visual language used in Manga apsect to aspect tansitions and frames of solo characters are far more prevalent. It is very common for characters to be seen individually or separated from their settings for moments of extreme emotional expression. Characters often appear in front of an abstract backdrop which represents the given emotion (Cohn 2013, p. 153-171).
In 'Gorky and Izzy's Trip to Mexico', the two main characters are emotionally alienated and struggle to find human connection. I used a number camera angles to help accentuate their alienation. High camera angles made the characters look small and I accentuated this with placing them in a large open space. Angled camera shots increased the tensions by disrupting uniform lines that we are used to seeing. In moments of extreme emotional outbursts I used a combination of close-ups and the Japanese technique of removing a character from his setting.
A note on the art style
Often a consistent art style is used throughout a comic or other work of art. Another technique, under used in the western visual language, but popular in Japan is the use of multiple art styles in the same frame.
Artists can describe their characters and settings using realistic, abstract and symbolic representations or combinations of them. Realistic representations mimic how the reader views the world and can create space to be submersed in. Symbolic representations contrast how the audience perceives the world and instead reflect how the audience perceives self, creating a character that can be empathised with.
Covers of 'Bone' by Jeff Smith (Smith 1991)
In the American comics there is very little variation in style, but in the European visual language it is common for symbolic characters to explore realistic worlds. This allows the reader to insert themselves into the character and experience the world through their eyes. Jeff Smith's series 'Bone' is a rare example found in American comics.
The European and Japanese visual languages differ in that the Japanese visual language will have both symbolic and realistic characters in the same panel. The realism of supporting characters helps accentuate their otherness. Often items will also change being symbolic to realistic depending on their relation to the protagonist (McCloud 1993).
In 'Gorky and Izzy's Trip to Mexico' I followed the method of contrasting realism and symbolism. First I used it to further alienate the main characters within a city. Then I used it to alienate Izzy, Gorky and the boss from the supporting characters. I also represented objects in both realism and symbolism depending on if they being used by the character or placed in the setting. This helped to communicate them as being an extension of the character or a part of place.
Movement to increase drama
In film, movement is often used to heighten dramatic elements and communicate a character or scene's mood. Because panning, tilting or other types of camera movement override the lower level grammatical structures of comics they cannot be translated into digital comics. However since atmospheric movement does not override the structures it can be used to add to the drama (Groensteen 2013).
Still from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (Seven Samurai 1954)
Director Akira Kurosawa is known as a master of movement. In addition to camera and character movements, he frequently uses the movement of weather and place to enhance his shots. The movement not only adds visual interest, it also accentuates the emotions of his actors (Every Frame A Painting 2015). Above, Kurosawa uses wind across dry earth to accentuate the hopelessness of the characters.
Alan Moore, the prolific and revolutionary comic book author, is currently working with a team of creatives and academics to create a new open sourced comic reader called Electricomics. He dismissed animation in comics as a sort of gimmick when being interviewed about his Electricomics project. He uses the example of a hero investigating a house in Will Eisner's 'The Spirit'.
'You might have a shot of the darkened kitchen, in the foreground there would be a faucet with a slightly elongated bead of water hanging from its business end. If you were trying to create this as a digital comic, surely the temptation would be to make the tap drip, even add a drip-drip-drip sound effect. But that would not make it better, it would remove the elegance of Eisner’s original, where through the elongation we know that in a second or two it will break free and fall and another bead will form.'
He then adds that comics, 'works upon the hardware of the human brain, the software of the human mind,' drawing on the same theories as Scott McCloud in that comics happen between the panels McCloud 1993).
What Moore does not investigate is when movement accentuates the particular mood of a scene. In Moore's particular example, the addition of animation not does add anything to the moment. The precise nature of some elements cannot be expressed purely through static image. For example the serenity of grass in a field gently moving in a breeze may be overlooked if it is static. But by creating movement, the reader can understand the exact nature of the movement and its importance can be emphasized.
In 'Gorky and Izzy's Trip to Mexico' I used atmospheric animation within scenes to further accentuate the alienation of the main characters. The city and people around them move, but they are static and separate. The only moment when one of them moves is when Gorky explodes with emotion, alienating himself from Izzy. Had I not used movement in the these panels, it would still be understood that the characters are in a city, but their emotional distance from it might not be.
In truth, any element can become a gimmick and when it does it loses its affect. That does not mean that artists should restrict themselves from using them. It means we should examine an element's appropriateness in that moment and if it adds or improves an idea that something else cannot.
Comics in the digital era are still based on many of the same principals as they were during print. Structures from visual languages that are not results of the limitations of previous technologies will continue to be the core of comics. In certain situations like that of segmentation, a problem which was solved by a past technology will require new solutions in its digital format.
The development of digital comics opens many new avenues for artists to communicate a narrative with animation and freedom in layout. New forms of panel transitions, layout and the inclusion of movement can build on the structure of visual language but cannot replace it. The grammar and structures of visual languages used in comics remain at the core of storytelling. Digital tools enhance the meaning of narratives and give creators freedom in their delivery, but cannot replace the principles of visual language in comics.
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